When I entered the shop I triggered some ghastly buzzer, which made me jump like a deranged woman. My elegant posture vanished and my cheeks fell. The noise was similar to what I’d set off the day before when I walked underneath one of those security arches at the island’s main airport. Instead of wishing me a lovely holiday, the guards had got all excited about my innocent buckles and a coin lost in loose stitching. Another ear-splitting buzzer was the last thing I needed.
The elderly shopkeeper sitting inside didn’t look up, though. Madam stayed focused on some ears of corn she was dehusking with a small knife. I use the word madam, but she could very well have been a man. The dry, chubby hands were definitely masculine, and so too was the grimy woollen hat. I would’ve said mister if it hadn’t been for the stockings and red, pointy shoes.
The lady should’ve been happy, no? No one for kilometres, and then there I was, stumbling into her dingy shack. I mean, you wouldn’t exactly call it a shop. Don’t make me laugh.
‘Those dresses hanging up outside,’ I said.
‘Not for you, dear.’ She ripped the hair and skin off another poor cob, still not wanting to see my face.
‘Not for me? I’m sorry?’
‘They’re for other women.’ She kicked the pot of naked corn in front of her.
Had she wanted to force the cobs to the bottom to make more room? Or had the lashing out been a warning? ‘The white dresses outside,’ I said more forcefully.
‘Sorry, my love, but you’re not going to be wearing one of those.’ This time she looked up, pulling off her hat. Yes, a man’s face. Eyes almost bleeding. Short, scruffy grey hair. Skin that resembled pastry. A man! Except for those shoes and stockings, and a dress made of dark velvet.
‘Well, no one else is wearing them,’ I said. A dim bulb crackled overhead, swinging from what seemed to be shoelaces tied together. ‘I have American dollars. I presume yours is a business that relies on profits?’
‘It’s not about money, dear. I just didn’t make a dress for someone like you.’
‘Well, of course you didn’t! I wouldn’t expect to find something made to order.’
She laughed and shook her head, the knife looking dangerous in her hand. ‘Don’t get angry. It’s not good for you.’
‘I could just try one on, madam. It’ll take just two minutes.’ I did feel angry. I thought these island traders were the ones who had to hustle. If I hadn’t had my heart set on the dress with the fine lacework around the middle, I would’ve stamped my way out of there, slamming her cardboard door behind me.
‘We have one for a woman who will fall in love,’ she said, her eyes now fixed on the ceiling. ‘There’s another one for a woman who will fall pregnant. Then there’s one for a woman who will love another woman.’ She looked sideways at me. ‘There’s also one for a woman who will leave her husband. Plus there’s one for a woman who will make a lot of money.’
‘Eh? Come again? How on earth do you know I’m not one of those women?’ The knife changed hands, slitting the neck of another innocent cob. I stepped back away from the bulb, over towards a dusty counter, and almost fell over a box full of colourful beach umbrellas. ‘You’re not making any sense.’
‘You’re just not one of those women, my love. They told me when you came in. You need a different dress. But I haven’t anything right now. I don’t know what they want me to make yet. Next week.’ She kicked the pot again and then gave it a couple of shakes with both hands.
One of the white dresses moved in front of the window outside, puffed up by the sea breeze. Thin rays of sunlight came through the decorative bits.
The old woman stood up and brushed bits of corn silk and leaves from her dress. ‘Come back next week if you want, dear. But remember that they choose you. You don’t choose them.’
‘What a load of nonsense.’ I laughed, but the sound seemed to be much lower than usual, like something had altered my voice. I put my hand up to my throat.
‘If you want a dress that chooses you, that could bring you something, come back. Maybe it will offer you the very thing you want.’
I marched to the door and then spun around to face her. ‘Oh, I don’t think so. I haven’t heard anything so crazy in my entire life. Dresses that won’t be chosen? Dresses that pick out women and then change their lives? How utterly ridiculous!’
The shopkeeper lifted up the pot without any effort and placed it on a table. She smiled. ‘Take care of yourself, dear.’
Out in the street, I found my husband stroking one of the dresses. ‘So, which one did you choose?’ he asked.
I got closer and saw he'd taken a hold of the one with the lacework around the middle. ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’
He didn’t release his grip on the dress, though. He held it out to me, grinning like a child. ‘It’s funny, but I’ve just had a strange vision of you in this one. Barefoot and pregnant. In a field of corn.’
© Copyright, 2008. Seamus Kearney. "The Dresses That Won't Be Chosen"