The Red Dress

By Patricia Poppenbeek



‘I don’t want to go,’ I said to my stepfather. I glanced at Mum, but her eyes were on him, her whole body thin and anxious. I hated that. It meant she was hurting for the drugs. I looked away.

Troy peered at me over his glasses. ‘We’re a family-friendly company, Isobel. That means when Martin asks us to bring our families to dinner, we bring them to dinner.’ He paused. ‘Unless you don’t regard us as a family? Unless you don’t think it’s important I keep my job?’

Uh-oh. I felt my face heat up. He was gonna go troppo. Mum looked beseechingly at me.

‘I’m sorry,’ I mumbled.

And?’ he prompted.

God, I hated him. Which was kinda ironic. I’d liked him quite a lot when Mum first took up with him, though after the others I’d been careful not to get attached. When he actually stayed, I’d been so relieved. She was happy, and I didn’t have to look after her so much. She cut down on the oxy and the other stuff, put on a bit of weight and looked much prettier. And he moved us out of Nan’s old house into a new two-storey house in Brunswick. I missed Nan but not her house, where I slept in the same room as Mum, and everything smelled musty and slugs oozed round the kitchen sink at night. The school in Brunswick was way nicer than the one in West Meadows, too – the kids actually sat in their seats in class and paid attention to the teacher, and you didn’t cop so much shit in the yard. I started sort of enjoying classes and getting good marks. Me quitting my Macca’s job at Troy’s insistence probably helped with that, too. I stopped feeling sleepy all the time and being late for school. The only problem was it was way harder to visit Nan so I didn’t see her near as often, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone except me and Nan.

Anyway.

‘And?’ he said again.

‘And I’ll go to this dinner,’ I muttered.

‘Good,’ he said, flashing me his smile. ‘I’ll be accompanied by the best looking women in the room.’ I hated it when he talked like that. ‘Lauren, make sure Isobel’s appropriately dressed.’

Two weeks later, I gazed in the mirror. ‘Stop hunching, darling,’ Mum said. Her eyes were bright, the pupils dilated. An odd look flickered over her face. ‘You’re a lovely young woman. Stop acting like you’re ashamed of it.’

The bare back and shoulders and the short skirt made me feel exposed, but I told myself at least my boobs were pretty well covered. And I had to admit the rose-red dress suited me, bringing out my black hair and eyes and white skin. Great for a goth look but blah otherwise and, like, no way Troy would have stood for me dressing goth.

Frowning slightly, Mum touched my back. ‘What have you done to yourself?’

I turned to look at my back in the mirror and stared. There were two parallel, slightly raised bruises between my shoulder blades and, now I was aware of them, they felt a bit sore and itchy.

‘Dunno,’ I said. Maybe it was when I was playing soccer? Things got pretty physical then.

‘You could cover them with a shawl,’ Mum said doubtfully. ‘Nah,’ I retorted. ‘It’s too hot and I kind of like them.’ They were a bit like tatts. Different.

‘All right,’ she said. She frowned at her image in the mirror. ‘I don’t look too haggish, do I?’

‘You look beautiful,’ I replied. ‘Like a fairy queen.’ And she did, in a white floaty dress with little fake diamonds on the belt, in her ears and round her delicate wrists. She’s got these high, film-star cheekbones, and she had me awfully young. She’s, like, only in her early thirties now.

She gave me an uncertain smile, picked up her bag and went into the bathroom. When she came out, her nostrils were slightly pink. My heart sank. She’d topped up in order to give herself courage.

‘Right,’ she said in a tinkling voice. ‘We’d better not keep your father waiting.’

He’s not my father, I mouthed behind her back. We walked out into the hot, restless night and got into Troy’s icily air-conditioned car. At the car park entrance of the apparently gold-plated tower, a muscular man in a tuxedo greeted us and directed us to a spot near a lift, where another guy in a tuxedo waited. We climbed out and went up to him. ‘Troy Delaney and my wife and daughter,’ Troy said grandly.

The man nodded, murmured something into his mouthpiece and pressed the lift. His eyes lingered on me and his nostrils flared slightly. He smiled, revealing very white, sharp teeth. ‘Have a delightful evening, Mr and Mrs Delaney. Miss Delaney.’

He stood aside as the lift doors slid open. I followed Troy and Mum in, my hands tight on my bag. I’m not your daughter, I thought. The lift rose with smooth speed and my ears popped a little. When the black doors opened again, a tall man, white-haired but handsome and vigorous, also formally dressed, came over, arm outstretched to shake my stepfather’s hand.

‘Troy! So glad you and your family could make it!’ He kissed Mum on both cheeks. Then he turned to me. ‘And this is your lovely daughter. Isobel, isn’t it?’ He kissed me on both cheeks, too. His lips were warm and slightly damp. Dark brown eyes met mine knowingly. ‘Step-daughter, I should say.’

I was imagining the red glints in his eyes, I told myself. I made myself smile and said what they reckoned we should say at school: ‘Pleased to meet you—’ Shit, it seemed cheeky to call him by his first name, and I had no idea what his surname was. It was like these people knew all about me and I didn’t know anything about them. ‘Sir,’ I said finally.

He patted my hand. ‘Martin Mallory. Martin will do, my dear. We are a family-friendly firm.’ For some reason, my stomach lurched and there was a feeling as though the world slid aside for a little. I was suddenly quite sure that wasn’t his name. I settled for continuing to smile like an idiot.

A bunch of adults and a few kids were standing round, drinks in their hands. There were three nerdy teenage boys, another girl of about fourteen and an anxious-looking little girl of about ten. We exchanged hopeful glances, but then dinner was announced. We all filed into a room with a long table covered in a white cloth, with white flowers and silver candelabra in the middle. There were cards behind each white plate, and none of us kids were together.

The adults talked about stocks and shares and real estate while we were served course after course of rich food. It was deadly. Mum hardly spoke, and drank steadily from the glass the waiters kept topping up. Even us kids were given wine to drink. I sipped a bit but it made me dizzy, so I stopped and defiantly grabbed a water jug to fill one of the other glasses. Martin caught my eye and smiled. The world lurched again. I looked down at my plate and tried to work out my maths homework. When I looked up again, his gaze had moved on.

We ate the final dessert an eternity later. Martin dabbed his mouth with a serviette and said, ‘We can offer you a few different kinds of entertainment. I believe some of you are interested in having a sort of grand tour of the penthouse, and others are keen to have a friendly game of billiards. Or perhaps those of you who brought your bathing suits might like to use the pool.’ He smiled at the teenage boys. ‘There’s a room with video games. Why don’t you all take a little time to freshen up, and then you can just wander round and stop wherever takes your fancy?’

There were a few laughs and excited murmurs. I was sweating and felt like I was going to vomit. I turned to Mum, but she had stood up and was moving away. I pushed past some chattering, perfumed women to the nearest waiter and asked for the closest bathroom.

He gave me an odd look. ‘Up those stairs, Miss, and down the corridor to your left.’

When I got there, I didn’t vomit, thank God, but it was a close call. I stayed there for a long time, breathing deeply, drinking from the tap and dabbing my face with cold water. My back ached. Sitting down on the cool tiles, I leaned my head against the wall and checked my phone. No reception. I felt dizzy. My eyes closed for what seemed like a few minutes, but when I opened them again and looked at my phone, I realised a lot more time had passed than I thought.

Hot with anxiety, I hurried out and walked downstairs again, but there was no-one there. It was dead quiet and my palms went clammy. One of the tuxedoed guys walked round a corner. He smiled at me. ‘There you are! Mr Mallory said to come on up to the roof garden.’

‘Is my mum up there?’

‘Mr Mallory will know,’ he said soothingly. He practically herded me up there, though he left me to make my own way through the glass door. I have to say, it was pretty outside, with a little pool and tiny trees and the glow of the other city buildings behind it, but there was no-one else there. I walked over to the decorative iron balcony. It was less than waist height, and though I’m not scared of heights, I hung onto it before looking down. And Martin Mallory strolled out of the shadows.

‘The most delicious one of all,’ he said. ‘Your father told me all about you, but you exceed expectations. I shall reward him suitably.’

He put his hands on my shoulders and pulled me in, set his lips hard on mine and thrust his tongue – cold, suffocating and tasting of ashes – down my throat. It felt as if he was worming his way to my core. I would have screamed if I could. Instead, I bit down hard.

‘Bitch!’ he snarled and hit me so hard my feet left the ground. I felt the balcony behind me, kept falling, falling. Terrified, disbelieving, I saw a shadow image of myself in the glass windows as I fell, arms outstretched, mouth wide open in a scream.

There was a horrible burning pain across my shoulders and something tore out of me.

I stopped falling. No, I actually bounced up a bit, then it became a controlled drop. Terrifying moments later I thumped onto the footpath and fell forward onto my hands. I levered myself up, mouth still open, looked up at the building I had fallen from, and then looked behind me. What? Wings! I had wings growing out of me! Wings, arching up and over me, semi transparent, traced in little black and silver beads, shifting and sparkling in the streetlights.

The wings moved, or I moved them. Ouch! Too much too soon, something told me. My dress was wet, and when I felt my back and sniffed my fingers, I could smell a faint, sweet smell, like a mix of honey and blood. Which sounds disgusting, but wasn’t.

I walked away on feet that didn’t seem my own. I had stepped out of one reality into another.

He tried to kill me.

I grew wings.

He tried to do something to me. Then he tried to kill me. I have wings.

On autopilot, I headed for the Elizabeth Street tram stop. Despite the heat, I felt cold: cold and sick. There were only two other people at the tram stop, and they were carefully not looking at me. They probably thought I had some kind of trashed fancy dress on.

When the Number 19 came, I hauled myself on and sat down. It was like being in a bubble of light, looking out at the darkness. I could see myself in the window, my wings cramped and accommodating themselves. The only other person in the tram was up the other end. I stared at my image in the window. There was something ethereal about my wings, as though they were imaginary, as though they could be … rearranged. Back, I thought, and they slid back into my body. I was a wingless girl sitting huddled in a tram seat. I remembered what my physics teacher had said about the nature of matter, that it’s mostly a vacuum.

I must have got them from my father.

I knew nothing about him. Every time I asked about him Mum just looked hurt, and then she’d go out to score, so I’d stopped asking. Who were you? I thought now. These wings, these feelings I’d had, they must have come from you. What were you? What am I?

When I finally got home, I gazed at the front door. I couldn’t get in. My key had been in my handbag, and that was God knows where. Troy’s car was there. There was a light on in their room, and I could just hear their voices. I reached to ring the bell and stopped. Why hadn’t they waited for me?

Martin had said he would reward Troy.

I shivered and looked up. My bedroom window wasn’t locked. I thought of my wings: they slid out and unfurled. I flapped, jumped, and then there was no ground beneath me. Somehow I swung my legs forward as my wings cupped the air, and then I was crouching on the windowsill. Still frantically flapping, I bent till I could pull the bloody window up. Holding on to the windowsill, I concentrated, pulled my wings in and wriggled through.

I crept to the open door. Troy was saying, ‘She’ll be fine, sweetheart. She won’t remember anything and we’ll be set for life.’

‘Yeah, baby,’ Mum slurred.

I hugged my arms across my chest, across the burning hollow of betrayal. My face hurt; everything hurt. I shut the door and flicked the light on. Tearing off the horrible dress, I dumped it in a red, sodden heap on the floor and pulled on my favourite cargo pants, softest T-shirt and running shoes. I found my real purse – the one with most of my money and my card in it, not the silly tiny one I’d taken – got out my rucksack, filled it with as much as I could, and dug out the musty sleeping bag I’d used at Nan’s. I threw the sleeping bag and the ruckie out the window. On a piece of paper from my desk, I scribbled, I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you and flung it on the bed. Muslims do that, right, and they’re divorced? I figured kids can do that to their parents, too. I felt a bit better, then.

I wriggled out the window, spread my wings, held my breath, pushed away. It wasn’t a proper flight – I glided really – but I landed okay. Then, far off, something howled. Not a dog. Some creature was hunting. I shivered, pulled my wings in, looped my things over my shoulders and headed for the tram stop. I dithered when I got there. Should I go to Nan’s? No, I thought. By now Martin and his men would know I’d survived, and they’d be looking for me. Nan was frail as an autumn leaf and smaller even than me. I couldn’t lead them to her.

An hour later I stood outside the Botanical Gardens. The tall gates in the metal fence were locked, of course, and when I touched them, there was a kind of sizzling bite. I read heaps of fantasy. Iron was supposed to be protective against magic, and the fence would be impossible for anything to leap over without touching it. I threw my stuff over. Then I ran, jumped, flapped my wings and pulled my legs up, and I was over the gates! I glided a little, and had to go back for my things. The feeling of being hunted stopped.

I spent the night in a rotunda curled in my sleeping bag, safe, waking with the morning sun in my eyes. My face hurt and I was terribly thirsty. I staggered out of the rotunda towards a water fountain and drank and drank and washed my face. There was no-one around; the only sound came from a whole lot of birds making weird noises. I scurried back to where I’d left my stuff, gathered it up and wandered down to the lake. The sun made sparkles dance over its dark depths. Ducks and swans were busily feeding. The mist was lifting, revealing an island.

I knelt on the bank and leaned over the still water. My image gazed back at me, eyes hollow, hair falling forward. I’d cut away the useless junkie mother who’d sold me. Great shuddering tears rolled down my cheeks, falling into the water. My wings curved around me, glorious and strange, but I couldn’t stop crying.

Two swans floated closer. One swam right up to me, raising its neck and making a soft meeping noise. I took a step or two back. Swans could be dangerous. It flapped its wings and hopped out. Then, very delicately, it stropped its beak against my shoe and pulled the lace out. It was — she was grooming me. She liked me.

The other one took off for the island bugling triumphantly, and somehow I understood. A winged child is here! he sang. Rejoice!




This piece and artwork were originally published in South of the Sun: Australian Fairy Tales for the 21st Century.

(Artwork by Roger Howley)