Friday morning arrived far too quickly for Jenny’s liking, and she woke with a sense of dread. Dragging herself out of bed, she opened her curtains to see what kind of day it was. The thick veil of fog across the ground outside only served to intensify the doomsday feeling. She did a few stretches, yawned loudly and wandered into her ensuite bathroom to brush her teeth. As she looked in the mirror, at the huge brown eyes staring back at her, she tried to pinpoint where this strange sense of foreboding was coming from.
‘Shit!’ she said to her reflection, as realisation dawned and her pulse quickened. The big brown eyes in the mirror looked terrified. I’m going speed dating tonight. Oh my God. How am I going to get out of it? Crap! I’m sick, I have to be sick. So sick that I can’t get out of bed today. Something contagious. Malaria? Typhoid? No, too exotic. Ams will never believe me. Chicken pox? Except we both got chicken pox together when we were nine. The mumps maybe? Quick, what are the symptoms of the mumps? Swollen glands? I’d better google it. Crap crap CRAP!
Before Jenny had a chance to come up with a believable contagious-but-not-hospital-serious illness, her mobile rang. Rinsing the toothpaste out of her mouth, she walked back into her bedroom to find it. Checking caller ID, Jenny’s heart sank when she saw who it was. Amber. She checked the time. Seven thirty in the morning.
‘Hi Ams, you’re up early.’
‘Hi Jen. I’m about to leave the gym, on my way to work, and I thought I’d better call.’
‘Er, why?’ Yes, yes - I know why. You’re checking up on me. You think I’m going to chicken out. Well, you’re right. I AM. I am going to have a deadly car accident this afternoon, and I won’t be able to make it.
Amber tut tutted on the other end of the line. ‘To make sure you weren’t going to pull out of speed dating tonight, of course.’
‘Ams, I said I’d go. I’m not going to pull out, the thought didn’t even cross my mind. I’m going. Okay?’
‘Okay, okay. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t going to pull a sickie or anything. I know what a big deal this is for you Jen, I thought you might need a little pep talk.’
Jenny sighed. Amber knew her too well. ‘Well, if you must know, I was just deciding whether you’d believe me if I said I had dysentery.’
Amber laughed down the phone. ‘Of course I wouldn’t have believed you! Now, tell me, what are you wearing tonight?’
Jenny walked over to her wardrobe and opened the door. Pushing aside hangers, she inspected the contents. Jeans, jeans, t-shirts, track pants, jeans, jerseys.
‘Um, jeans, I guess?’
‘Right,’ Amber’s tone was brisk, ‘you are absolutely not wearing jeans. There’s no time to get something online. I’m picking you up at 2pm, we’re going shopping.’
‘Oh, Ams, I couldn’t. You know I can’t. All those people, coughing and touching stuff. And trying on clothes that other people have already worn. Ugh.’
‘We’re not going to any old department store Jen, we’re going to Crawford’s Boutique. There won’t be crowds, and no-one will be touching stuff because it’s too expensive and everyone’s too worried about leaving their fingerprints on the clothes in case they have to pay for them.’
Jenny gritted her teeth. No, I’m not coming. Absolutely definitively not. I’d rather die, slowly and painfully. ‘Um, okay.’
‘Good, I’d better get to work. See you at two.’
Jenny hung up the phone, and felt the earlier cloud of dread settle on her shoulders once more. What the hell am I doing? Why is Amber making me do this?
Carrying her mobile into the kitchen, where she switched on the jug and stood against the fridge staring into space, Jenny was startled when her mobile beeped. It was Ellen.
Morning all. Jen, today’s the big day. SPEED DATING. Hope you’re not too nervous. Have you decided what you’re wearing?
Before Jenny had a chance to reply, a flurry of incoming messages arrived.
Good luck Jenny! Show those bastards you mean business doll. #menareallbastards
Good luck Jenny – you’re amazing! (and good luck Phil too)
Dnt no bout u Jen, bt im crapping myslf. Meet u ther at 7?
All the best you two. Go forth and conquer…
I’ve got salsa tonight , want to swap?
Jenny laughed to herself. Speed dating was one thing, rubbing up against a sweaty stranger on the dance floor was something else altogether. Quickly making a cup of tea, she sat down at her breakfast bar, took a sip and wrote a reply.
Thanks for your support everyone. And no, I don’t want to swap Grayson… Not with you anyway, but maybe with anyone else who ISN’T going speed dating or salsa dancing tonight…perhaps someone’s having a root canal and wants to trade places?
Ellen, I was going to wear jeans. But my best (and only) friend, Amber, told me this is unacceptable and she’s taking me shopping. I know, right!? Me, going real-life shopping. To somewhere called Crawdown Boutique, or something like that.
Jenny sent her message, and waited for a reply. It didn’t take long, and she expected to see a message from Ellen or one of the guys. She checked the caller ID, twice. Suzanne?
Itz Crawford’s Boutique, actully. Very xclusve. U can only get in by appt. Lucky u! Therez a plum colord JD shift drss in the spring collecshun that wld realy suit yor eyez. Tell Pam u no me.
Jenny read the message in amazement. So she writes text speak, like Phil. Not surprising, given she’s only twelve or something. And she’s giving me shopping advice? Probably not surprising either, given she’s addicted to it. So far, Suzanne hadn’t interacted with anyone in the group, either in or out of their fortnightly meetings. Apparently the rest of the group were equally astounded, as the messages stopped for a few minutes, presumably while everyone recovered from the shock. Phil was the first to regain his composure.
Hi Suzanne! Good 2 hear frm u!
Jen, if u r goin 2 dress fancy, doz that mean i hve 2?
Jenny immediately felt sorry for Phil. His usual attire at their meetings was well-worn jeans, t-shirts and hoodies. It was hard enough shopping when you were afraid of the germs on the hangers, but she imagined it was equally hard when you were extremely overweight and insecure. Before she could comment, another message from Anthony came through.
I know a thing or two about fashion Phil. I don’t often go shopping (too many temptations), but if we went together I could probably focus on dressing you and not on filling my pockets. Might be a win for both of us. Meet me at Centreplace at lunchtime?
Thatz real decnt of u Ant. That b gr8. Thanx! C u then.
Jenny put her mobile down and took another sip of tea, smiling to herself. What a bunch of crazies, she thought to herself fondly, MY crazies. Better get some work done before Amber comes to pick me up.
Six hours later, at exactly 2pm, Jenny’s apartment buzzer rang. She lifted the receiver and spoke into it.
‘I’ll be down in a minute Ams.’
Taking a few deep breaths, she examined herself critically in the full length mirror beside the front door. Given Suzanne’s revelation about Crawford’s, she had decided to make an effort with her appearance. She was wearing her newest dark blue jeans, a cream woollen sweater and brown suede knee high boots. She’d even managed to apply some blusher to her cheeks.
I look like a hooker, she thought to herself crossly, trying to rub the pink circles of blusher from her face, which only made her cheeks pinker. Opening her front door, she hesitated before walking out. I can do this. I’ve got this, she repeated to herself like a mantra as she walked down the staircase to the ground floor.
Amber was waiting for her at the bottom step. ‘Jen, you look great.’ She peered closely at Jenny’s face. ‘Have you got some make-up on?’ she asked in surprise.
‘Er, I did. But I looked like, um, a lady of the night so I wiped it off again.’
Amber laughed. ‘Okay, let’s focus on clothes. We’ll broach the make-up thing another day.’
Walking towards Amber’s car, Jenny stiffened. This was the first time she had been in someone else’s car in years, and she hadn’t given this element of the trip any thought. Which was unusual, travelling in someone else’s car was normally something that would feature highly on her worst-case scenario radar. Amber watched her face with concern.
‘Jen, how about we drive separately, and I meet you there?’
Jenny let out a sigh of relief. ‘Is that ok, Ams? Sorry, I just, sorry…’
‘Jen,’ Amber’s tone was brisk, ‘it’s totally amazing that you’re coming out with me in the first place. We’ve never been shopping together. At least, not since we were twelve or something. Honestly, I couldn’t really believe you said yes in the first place. It’s absolutely fine for you to go in your own car. I actually thought on the way over here that I should have suggested it anyway. I’ll text you the address and directions, and I’ll see you there soon.’
Jenny looked at her friend with gratitude, and wished not for the first time that she could give her an affectionate hug. ‘Okay, thanks Ams. See you there.’
Arriving at the boutique, Jenny pulled into the carpark beside Amber’s car and took a few deep breaths to steady her nerves. Amber was waiting on the footpath for her when she got out.
‘I’m so excited Jen, I can’t believe we’re actually out shopping together.’
‘Neither can I!’ Though I’m not sure excitement is the right word. Terror maybe…
‘Now, just so you know,’ Amber lowered her voice to a whisper, ‘the manager’s a real dragon, but she’s amazing at what she does.’
Jenny swallowed nervously. ‘Right, okay.’
Ringing the buzzer at the entrance to the shop, Jenny looked at Amber questioningly as they waited for someone to let them in. ‘This is really exclusive, isn’t it?’
Amber nodded, and looked at her watch impatiently. ‘God, they’re taking their sweet time in there.’
Suddenly, a lady’s face appeared behind the door, and she swept an imperial glance over the two of them. It was impossible to tell her age. Fifty? Sixty? Ninety?
Clearly, she found Jenny wanting and only flicked the briefest of glances over her. But, recognising Amber, she gave a brief smile and opened the door with a flourish.
‘Amber, darling, how wonderful to see you!’ she reached out and took Amber’s coat. Turning to Jenny, she raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow. ‘Can I take your coat…?’
‘Oh, oh no, that’s okay.’ Jenny mumbled.
‘Of course,’ she said, turning on her heel and walking ahead of them into the shop.
Jenny took a few steps forward, and gasped. Nothing from the outside of the building gave any indication of the luxury hidden inside, and she stared around her in wonder. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, casting a magical glow over the walls, which were a light shimmery grey. The racks of clothes themselves looked endless, all immaculately hung and colour coordinated, and reflected in a large ornate mirror which almost covered one whole wall. As Jenny took it all in, she turned to Amber in amazement.
‘I know,’ Amber sighed, ‘isn’t it heaven?’
‘Now,’ the ageless lady turned and spoke to them briskly, ‘what can I do for you?’
‘My friend, Jenny, needs a special outfit for a date tonight. She…’
Before Amber could finish speaking, Jenny interrupted.
‘Ah, actually, I was wondering if Pam was here?’ Jenny asked. Amber stared at her in surprise.
‘I am Pamela,’ said the ageless lady. ‘Why do you ask for me?’ She peered closely at Jenny’s face. ‘Have we met before? You can’t have shopped here before, I always remember my clientele.’
‘Um, no, no I haven’t. A friend of mine, Suzanne, said to ask for you. Suzanne Iremonger.’
The change in Pamela’s frosty demeanour was instantaneous. ‘Suze? Oh, the darling darling girl. She’s a friend of yours?’ Jenny nodded. ‘Well, why didn’t you say so at the start?’ Pamela smiled broadly and warmly. ‘Now, let’s find you the perfect outfit. I’m thinking mint green. No, no wait. Cerise would look wonderful on you.’
‘Suzanne suggested a dress, actually.’ Jenny chewed her lip nervously, as Pamela turned to look at her and Amber’s eyes widened. ‘A plum shift dress, DD or JD? From the new spring range?’
Pam looked as if she was going to faint. ‘She’s right!’ she declared to the luxurious room. ‘She’s absolutely right. She has a gift, that girl. An amazing eye for colour and fit. You head over to the changing room, I’ll bring you the dress.’ Pamela looked Jenny up and down briefly, before walking off. ‘We’ll start with a size eight,’ she called over her shoulder.
As Jenny and Amber reached the changing rooms, a wonderful line of enormous, softly but brightly lit dressing rooms with the thickest and most luxurious carpet Jenny had ever walked on, Amber turned to her in confusion.
‘So, who’s Suzanne? I’ve never heard you talk about her before?’
‘Um, she’s in my group. My support group.’
’Oh my God, not the sex addict?’ Amber breathed excitedly.
Jenny shook her head, surprised at how protective she felt of Ellen. ‘No, that’s someone else. And that’s not her fault you know, she can’t help it.’
Amber was about to question her further, when Pamela arrived, holding a dress in the most beautiful shade of dark purple that Jenny had ever seen.
‘This is it,’ she held it up for them to see it better. ‘Is it, or is it not, the most divine colour you have ever seen?’
Amber and Jenny both nodded, transfixed.
‘I’m just dying to see this dress on you - please, in there.’ Pam indicated the nearest fitting room. Jenny hesitated, and Amber smiled at her reassuringly.
‘Has, er, has anyone else tried this dress on?’ Jenny asked Pamela, who had hung the dress on a hook inside the fitting room.
Pamela looked affronted. ‘Of course not. There has never been a body made for this dress. Until yours.’
Jenny walked into the changing room, and Pamela swiftly pulled the curtains shut behind her. Taking a bottle of disinfectant out of her bag, she quickly sprayed her hands and the handle of the dress’s hanger. Satisfied, she removed her clothes and folded them neatly on the seat provided. Undoing the zip of the purple dress, she couldn’t help but stop to inhale the scent of the expensive material, and tenderly touch the delicate stitching on the bodice. Pulling the dress up over her body, she shivered nervously. This was an entirely new experience. I seem to be having a lot of entirely new experiences lately, she thought to herself with a smile.
Walking out of the changing room, Jenny smiled shyly. ‘I haven’t looked in the mirror yet, I’m too afraid that the dress won’t suit me, that I won’t like it.’
Amber and Pamela both stared back at her, their mouths open.
’Jen, you look beautiful, absolutely beautiful,’ Amber gushed, her eyes shining.
‘That’s it. That is exactly the dress! Suze is never wrong.’ Pamela said, gently turning Jenny around to face the mirror so that she could do the zip up at the back. ‘Look, look at how wonderful this dress is on you.’ Jenny tried not to grimace at the touch of Pamela’s hand on her back, and obediently lifted her head to look at her reflection. She blinked a few times, as if to ensure the person in the mirror was actually herself.
‘Oh my God,’ Jenny said, as she looked at herself. ‘I don’t even look like me.’ The girl in the mirror smiled back at her, her eyes so brown they were nearly black, and her skin so smooth it practically glowed.
‘You do Jen, you look like the proper you - without being hidden away. The colour of that dress is unbelievable on you.’
‘So, the dress will be yours Jenny.’ Jenny wasn’t sure if Pamela was asking her or telling her. Either way, she knew she had to buy it. Noticing the price tag hanging under her arm, she sneaked a quick look at it, and let out a gasp of shock. $699.00. Shit, that’s a whole week’s rent and bills. For a dress. She took another look at herself in the mirror. For a wonderful, magical, beautiful dress.
‘Yes, the dress will be mine,’ Jenny said, as she walked back into the changing room, dreading having to take it off.