we are a little different this year:
some contributions are exclusive stories, others are excerpts
from the authors' novels,
but all have our traditional format of...
Read the Story - Guess the Song
Here's a clue to the song title
La Belle Russe
The length of greeny grey crepe de chine was expertly run along the counter by the neat woman who was in charge of the more expensive silks. The Chinese Emporium was a haven for western shoppers who wanted clothes made by the tailors in Shanghai. Fabrics, trimmings, thread all could be bought here at reasonable prices and the tailors were adept at copying styles from Paris and London or indeed from a costume that needed to be replaced. No patterns required, just that eye, that calculation, that knowledge of how the geometry of it all worked.
Mary regarded the material, it was exactly the colour she wanted, it picked up the green in her eyes, it complemented her tawny hair, it was perfect. A new blouse for the tea party she had been invited to at the French legation.
The scissors swiped though with ease and the folds were wrapped into tissue and placed in a bright pink carrier bag.
In the tailors the design was agreed, a soft draped collar, a pleated yoke and full sleeves that finished in a deep cuff. Ah Fung measured and nodded and said all would be ready by Friday afternoon, the day before the tea party.
‘And buttons, Missee Mary? You have buttons?’
No, she didn’t, where could she find just the right buttons for this all important blouse? Ah Fung pulled out an old cardboard box, ‘Look see,’ he said, ‘many buttons here, you choose.’ And he turned away to the next customer.
There were pearl buttons and shell buttons. Tiny gilt buttons, large embossed buttons. One button that was almost a medallion, still sewn onto a patch of navy material with coarse black thread. How many did she need? Two for the cuffs and four for the placket. And there they were, six beautiful buttons, looped onto their own piece of card. Dark green, with five yellow flowers picked out on their circle, gold leaves against the flowers, a raised centre, a button like a flower and within it more flowers. Perfect, they would lift the green of the blouse; they would be an elegant but interesting finishing touch.
Ah Fung approved, ‘Not too heavy.’
‘Where did they come from?’
‘Lady Olga, la Belle Russe.’
Mary knew what that meant even though she didn’t know Lady Olga, no doubt a countess, or even grander. There were White Russians escaping from the northeast of Russia, Vladivostok perhaps, into the north of China, and making their way south with a few pieces to sell. Her little sister had a doll that came from an émigré, a beautiful wax face and golden curls with a magnificent blue satin dress. She shook her head, it wasn’t good to dwell on these things, instead think about the fun that could be had here in Shanghai. The tea party had much promise.
A clear sky and warm sun, the first of May, flowers everywhere and a sense of high spirits in the air. Mary dressed carefully, a fine twill skirt, a wide black leather belt and the new blouse. She coiled up her hair and pinned it with two jade clips, an eighteenth birthday present. The party to celebrate the day had been modest, so soon after Christmas meant it always was, but this year her mother had smiled and said,
‘Eighteen, time for you to wear your hair dressed,’ and the maid had helped and shown her how to fix the clips so that they held her hair just so.
The tea party had begun when she arrived, the building humming with the noise and the chatter of more than fifty people. Mary slipped in the side door, avoiding the main entrance, she didn’t want the fuss. She only wanted to find Emile. She saw him almost immediately. He was talking to the consul’s wife who had just arrived back from her leave in Paris. She was tapping his arm as she made some vehement pronouncement. He caught sight of Mary and smiled but didn’t beckon her to join him. Her heart sank, was he in one of his moods? If so, no new blouse, no jade clips, no amount of pretty talk would make him take any notice of her. Someone brought her tea, and a plate of tiny cakes were offered. She refused and moved to the side of the room where there were people she knew, Belinda Hart, stupid but kind, Polly who was getting married in June, they would both chatter away at her and she could just make small noises and they would not mind her lack of interest for they really, she thought, they really were talking to themselves. And so half an hour of inanities passed by and still Emile was with that woman, but others there too now. Would he speak to her today at all? She turned resolutely to Polly and asked her about bridesmaids’ dresses and the pageboys and Polly prattled on.
A hand on her shoulder, a voice.
‘Mary, you look enchanting, those jade clips are wonderful, turn around so I can see them properly.’
She turned and he held her hands, ‘I couldn’t get away, Anne Marie has all the latest gossip and she was determined to tell me and, you know,’ an expressive shrug ‘that special group she cultivates.’
Mary nodded; she couldn’t stop looking at his hands holding hers. He had never held her hands before.
‘Come we will walk, the garden is quieter, have you had enough tea. Yes? Good.’
The garden was quiet, and he walked her with great determination to a far corner, and they stood under the great plane tree.
‘Did I ever tell you that the French brought these trees, these planes to Shanghai, thirty years ago, aren’t they magnificent?’ And he slid the jade clips out of her hair and let it tumble down.
‘I can’t put my hair up without a mirror,’ she began to stutter. Emile leant forward and pushed her hair away from her face. He kissed her nose, her forehead and lingered over her mouth but drew back and said, ‘Maybe next time. And I can help with your hair, I am an expert.’ He laughed and began to coil it tighter and tighter.
‘Is it? Oh dear,’ and he fixed the jade clips with a slight but sharp dig.
‘Now let me look at you again, something to remember.’ He traced the cut of her sleeve,
Very good, almost Cossack, and the buttons, where did these come from?’
‘Ah Fung said the Lady Olga, a White Russian, I am sure. But no one I know.’
‘Lady Olga, really that is very interesting. Last seen working as a taxi dancer I believe. She has to support the family somehow.’ He twisted the button on her right cuff. ‘Very pretty, I would like to undo each and every one, but it is not to be.’
His eyes were cruel Mary decided; he was playing games all the time, games she didn’t care for. It had been exciting when he had first paid attention to her during the Christmas season and on her birthday. Father thought him very clever and was impressed that he lived in such a splendid apartment. ‘In the Cathay Mansion. Sassoon built it Mary, extraordinary place.’
‘I think I must go now,’ she took a step back.
‘Yes, run along I think you must go too.’ He shrugged. She walked slowly back on the neat well swept paths, refusing to look to see if he was following her or not. In the house Belinda was getting ready to go home.
‘Shall we walk together Mary, you can tell me what on earth Emile was up to in the garden, we all thought he was going to sweep you off your feet.’
‘No, that definitely didn’t and isn’t happening.’
‘Good because I hear he has a mistress some White Russian woman called Olga, she was a taxi dancer, you know, those women who have to partner just anyone who pays in the dance halls. But he has set her up in a business with her father, quite near here. You know in Little Russia. It’s a bistro, I think they call it, she cooks, and her father serves. Goodness knows how they manage to be good at any of that sort of work, they have never lifted a finger before in their lives.’
Mary undressed that evening and put the jade clips in their lacquer box, she would wear them again as often as she could. Her mother had given them to her, they were special. She looked at the blouse, it was perfect, but the buttons would have to be changed. She would unpick them and in the morning they would be delivered to that bistro in Little Russia.
Song: Button and Bows
Dinah Shore version
I was born in Southampton in 1943 and originally trained for
the theatre at the Arts Educational School in Tring. Later in London I worked
in the Libraries and Arts department of the London Borough of Camden, running
the box office for the Arts Festival and then working as a library assistant
for books delivered to the housebound. I had to read a huge selection of books
so that I could make recommendations and talk to a variety of people about
books that they wanted and liked. In 1977 I moved with my husband and two young
daughters to Hong Kong where I worked for the British Council, teaching,
writing primary school text books and managing English Language projects for
Chinese teachers of English. I studied for an MA in TEFL at the University of
Reading. In 1998 I was award the MBE for my work in HK. I am now retired and
live in South West France where I am President of a local History Society. I
began writing seriously and creatively in 2011 and it was the most wonderful
experience to be liberated into the world of imagination and stories.
images via: Pixabay unless otherwise stated
Note: it is illegal to copy lyrics but there is no © for ideas!
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A lovely story - even though I have a horrible aversion to buttons!!ReplyDelete