Keeping Up Appearances

khoa-nguyen-489041-unsplashThe word I’m looking for is gown. They have dressed her in a gown. But not like the one she wore to her prom: strapless, bottle-green silk that grazed her early curves. I was the one to do her make-up that night, and I remember how her lips twitched as I tickled her cupid’s bow with the wine-coloured liner. She asked me if she looked glamourous. Iconic, I said. Perfect. And as she twisted in front of the mirror, I knew she believed it. That one time.

But today she wears cream lace tiers, trimmed with ivory ribbon: pale fabric that sits slack across her frame and widens into an A below her toes. I think of mother’s china dolls that we weren’t allowed to touch, even though they’d been sat high on a shelf in our room. A line of ever-watchful porcelain idols. When I grew tall enough, I’d bring them down so we could secretly run our fingers over their cold faces as we admired their flawless skin and smooth ringlets.

The gown covers every inch of her skin except her face, which is bare apart from the rose-pink colour they have used across her cheekbones and lips, to soften her into a smile. It is not her smile, the one that left red wounds on tumblers that I sometimes collected from her room on those mornings I came over, after I’d started a teaching job and moved out. The porcelain dolls, now propped against bottles of spirits, surveyed the carpet of bright satins and black leathers with silent disapproval. Mother was less silent. Her beratings rang out like an alarm clock: sharp and relentless, until her daughter left her bed.

I lift the material that covers her toes. They have cleaned the polish from her nails, though a cherry rind crusts the nail-bed, the remnants of one last party. I touch her thin, auburn waves and wonder how many times they washed her hair. It was black the last time I saw her. At 2 a.m. she’d hung in my doorframe with her head pitched forward, her face hidden behind the dark curtain that shone like plastic under the security light, mumbling something about how she wasn’t me. I went downstairs the next morning with toast and tea but she’d gone again. A faint outline of a foetal curl on the quilt, the only evidence that she’d been there.

The sleeves bell across her knuckles. Her last tattoo was a stanza of Plath and the script curls all the way around her arm in a spiral, from her shoulder into the palm of her hand. Mother had been silent then, until she wasn’t. As she left the room, she told her youngest daughter that she was simply a disgrace. Simply, like she could be nothing more, nothing other than that.

You can see the ink shining through the thin cloth of the sleeve now, but only if you’re really looking for it. There are other lyrics, other lines, inscribed all over her body, hidden beneath this dress.

My mother approaches. Her heavy, amber perfume hangs in the air as she leans forward to smooth my sister’s gown. A perfect marble tear of blue-black runs down her cheek, demonstrable evidence of her grief from beneath the crisp, black veil which covers the upper-half of her face. The effect of the material is such that you can’t really be sure of her expression, but I know that when she turns her head slightly, she is appraising me. I would not have worn any colour other than black today, but I have chosen a dress with a high neck and a hemline that falls below my knees. I would like to believe that I would have picked these clothes anyway. Even before Mother reassured herself last night that I had turned out OK.

As the first soft chords fade in, Mother asks, ‘Oh God, how could we not have known?’

I stare after the lintless black wool of her jacket as she returns to the pews, then I kiss my sister’s cold forehead and roll back her sleeve, just enough to unhide those last inked words. These were her hands.

Published by Inside the Bell Jar, May 2018

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