I have to admit, a birdcage, a girl in a green coat and rice are not necessarily subjects I might think of as naturally sympatico. However, I was reading my buddy Sylvia Baxter’s blog today, and she wrote an article mentioning those three things. When I chatted with her later, I said how much I was tempted to do as she suggested and write something around those ideas and we made a pact. We’d both go away and write a story containing those three things of around 1000 words. You can find hers on her blog – sybax.wordpress.com
What I love most about our stories is that, despite being very different, they have certain similarities beyond the three obvious ones.
I hope you enjoy them both, I loved reading hers, she’s very talented and imaginative and I enjoyed writing mine too. Here it is…
The Birdcage opened its doors at 9am prompt. Not that the rich and elaborately dressed ladies who shopped there would begin to arrive much before 11. Jean smoothed out her neat black skirt and blouse, checked her hair in one of the many gilt-edged mirrors and began checking the racks of designer and overly-priced garments to ensure they were regimented, like colourful soldiers.
Despite the opulence of her surroundings, it wasn’t often that Jean saw something that made her heart leap. Yesterday had been different. In amongst the cocktail dresses, silk scarves and beaded jackets had been a coat, just one coat; emerald green velvet, with a nipped waist, a flowing skirt and a simple, but beautifully cut collar. It had taken her breath away with its depth and simplicity.
It wasn’t the usual type of stock held by the shop, it wasn’t even on the manifest, but the price had been clearly marked, £850. Jean had initially thought she might put it in the window of the small boutique, but had hesitated, the coat soft and yielding between her fingers. Something was telling her that this coat was too good for the ‘ladies who lunch’, women who came in to thrash their husband’s platinum credit card, before going off to meet someone named ‘Saskia’ or ‘Pru’ for lunch.
They wouldn’t love this coat as Jean instinctively did. She had put it, already on its hanger, at the back of a rack of out of season sale items which nobody, certainly not the designer ladies, ever touched. Jean wasn’t even sure why she didn’t want to sell the coat. It wasn’t like she could have it herself. She was 52 this year, half a size too large to fit the velvet coat and couldn’t afford it on the wages paid by the Birdcage. Anyway, even if she had managed to buy and wear the coat, where would she go? It was too special to wear down the Dog and Partridge on a Saturday, when she went for a few drinks with her husband, Patrick.
Jean and Patrick’s wedding anniversary was coming up – 25 years – and she’d been saving a little each month towards a surprise for him. She thought it would be lovely to get away somewhere warm and had managed to squirrel away £700 so far. They both worked hard and, after bringing up their (sometimes seemingly spoilt and ungrateful) children and continuing to support them even now, they had little left over for luxuries.
Jean was contemplating making herself a cup of tea, when the charmingly old-fashioned bell over the door chimed and a young woman ducked inside out of the recently incessant rain. She ran her practised eye over the girl and knew immediately that the arrival was more Primark than Prada, but Jean was no snob and greeted all customers with her genuinely warm smile.
The girl smiled back and began to move in a vague way along the racks, trailing her slightly bitten fingernails over the luxurious fabrics. Jean had learned that most of her ‘ladies’ preferred to receive help from an assistant, only when they requested it with an imperious nod or a beckoning finger. The girl seemed hesitant and so Jean moved forward and asked gently, “Is there something in particular you were looking for? Can I help?”
The girl turned, pushing her dark red, rain-sodden hair from her face and Jean saw that she had a quite lovely face, pale and lightly freckled, lit by deep green eyes. The girl said, “Oh, yes. I mean maybe. The thing is… I get married this afternoon and I don’t know what I’m doing really.”
Jean smiled encouragingly and said “Well, congratulations, you must be very excited”, the girl smiled and turned slightly back to the rack, before continuing, “Well, I was before all this rain! We’re getting married in the park”. She laughed and indicated the deluge outside.
Jean frowned sympathetically, the girl continued, “I’ve had my dress for a few weeks now, I thought it would be perfect for June, but I suppose you can never tell how the weather will be… it’s very simple, just a white flared dress, slightly below my knee, with thin shoulder straps.”
Jean just knew. She knew the coat had been intended for this very day, for this bride, but she also knew that the girl could never afford to spend £850 on any one item, even for her own wedding. Her heart was beating fast as she made her way to the back of the shop and retrieved the coat. “What about this?” she asked, her voice shaking slightly. The girl turned and her whole face lit up and then fell in an almost comedic way. “How much is it? I only have around £100 to spend.” She blushed a little.
Jean walked back over to her and, taking the coat from its hanger, held it out to the bride. “Try it on, it’s on sale.” The girl tugged off her denim jacket impatiently and let it fall at her feet on the polished floor and reached for the soft, liquid velvet coat. As she slipped it on, Jean knew she was right. It looked like it had been made for her and it brought out the colour of her eyes.
The bride looked at her questioningly, “Is it…?” Jean swallowed, unasked for tears springing into her eyes. “It’s perfect,” replied Jean, “I knew it would be, and just the right price too.”
As the girl left the shop, calling back to Jean that she hoped she could come and see her marry her man later that afternoon, Jean felt happier than she had done in a long time.
At ten to four, Jean locked the shop. She would tell the owner she had a dentists appointment if he ever found out she had left early. She hurried along to the grocers to buy some confetti on the way to the park and told him where she was going. Pete, the grocer, informed her that these days, you weren’t allowed to throw confetti in public areas, as it was considered littering, but said that she could throw rice.
Jean put up her umbrella and walked with quick and light footsteps towards the park, a bag of Tilda basmati in the bottom of her large and practical handbag, next to the secret money stash compartment, which was now empty.