The Fabric of Something She Made
by Sarah Mitchell-Jackson
It is hard for Roma to express in words the sense of optimism the beginning of a new dress gives her. The fabric slides, heavy and rich, across her hand, and she is gripped with fear before she cuts, lest her fingers make a decision from which she could not return. Every time, she forgets how lengthy the cutting process is, the repetition of bodice back and bodice front and skirt and sleeves and then the whole process again with the lining material. The grain is important. Fraying is a tragedy.
Making the dress instills in her a sort of enforced patience. Every step in the algorithm has to be done carefully and neatly. Pressing in the right direction with the iron is the key. If something is wrong, it is best not to attempt to move on but to unpick the mistake, press it out of the fabric, and try again, armed with the knowledge gained from the most recent failure. It is all about staying in the moment, not rushing towards the finish, but accepting the place you are in.
The dress is for a concert to which Alexander is taking her. It is a concert, not a gig, and it’s in one of the colleges. It is just the sort of event her mother approves of her attending. Generally, Roma does not agree. She wants to have fun and be cool, not sedate and classy. Actually, she does want to be classy, but while also being fun and cool. This is a fine and awkward line to tread, and she doesn’t know anyone who achieves it, so there is no one to copy. She is having to forge her own path.
She would not be attending a concert in one of the colleges if she did not fancy Alexander. Fancying Alexander is a new development. They have known each other since school – they sat next to each other in Chemistry. She is pretending to the world that she does not fancy Alexander, just in case she should fail.
“Whatever she wears looks clunky and homemade,” Annalise declares. She is flicking through a fashion magazine and seems to believe being photographed is to demand criticism. No one measures up to Annalise’s standards.
“Hey,” Roma takes instant offense.
“We don’t use ‘homemade’ as a derogatory comment in this family,” their mother interjects, looking up from the novel she is reading with just the merest flick of her eyes, her face completely still, repelling anyone who might have a notion of interaction.
“Anymore,” Roma says bitterly. Even this is not true. They are all snobs, every last one of them, which is actually why Roma is called Roma.
“Would you want to be photographed looking this lumpy?” Annalise asks, thrusting the magazine in front of Roma’s face. Roma pulls backwards and looks.
“No,” she admits. “I would not like to be photographed.” This is not quite true. She would like to be photographed and be pleased with the results, but this seems like a vain hope, so she settles for no photography at all. Annalise rolls her eyes. Roma has clearly disappointed her again.
“Neither of you has to worry,” their mother says. She doesn’t even look up from her book this time. “Neither of you looks lumpy. You are both beautiful.”
Annalise and Roma ignore her. It’s the only possible response.
When she uses her sewing machine, Roma cannot hear Annalise’s music. This is bliss. Annalise likes poppy girl bands that seem superficial and overly optimistic about the state of the world. Roma likes angry music, preferably containing political statements and calls to arms, because it makes her feel less angry, less frail, less marginalized, less oppressed.
The zip is awkward. Zips always are. She has watched two different tutorials online, but it’s still not quite right. She unpicks the side she’s stitched and presses it out, ready to start again.
“Roma! Telephone for you!” Her father is shouting up the stairs in just the way her mother dislikes. Roma is surprised her father has answered. If there’s no one else to pick up a ringing phone, he usually lets it go to voicemail, rather than having to speak to anyone outside the immediate family. One of the hardest things about term time is not getting to speak properly to her father. Roma is also surprised that anyone is calling her on the landline, when she is sitting right next to her mobile phone.
“Who is it?” Roma asks almost silently.
Her father shrugs and uses his ‘beats me’ face, as though he were not part of the process of forcing her away from her dress and toward the phone.
“Hello. I’ve lost my phone.”
“Oh.” It’s Juliette. Roma can tell just from hearing her voice.
“Yes. Oh. I need you to give me everyone’s numbers. I’m going to write them down.”
“Okay. How lost is it?”
“Not sure. There’s a chance I left it on the train. I was a bit distracted because this man – he was quite old. Not parents-old but sort of 30s – started shouting at me when we got to the station.”
“Why was he shouting at you?”
“God knows. It was a bit awful. He was saying something about students, about how the city is overrun with them, and he sort of has a point. I mean, what am I now—town or gown? It’s my town but I’m a gown. Confusing. Existential, almost. I was really tempted to explain that I’m not a student here, but then I couldn’t be bothered. I don’t want to have to defend my life choices to a total stranger, even if he is shouting at me.”
“Was he perfectly sane?” Roma asks. From the description, she thinks not.
“I don’t know. Maybe he was flirting with me. I can never tell. Anyway, those numbers?”
While Roma works on the hem by hand, laying it carefully on the floor and then flipping it to the other side to check that it is even, she is also making a quiche. She has left the pastry in the fridge too long and is waiting for it to be soft enough to roll. She has pinned the hem, ready to sew the first section with the sewing machine.
“What are you making for dinner?” Annalise asks, suspicion dripping from her words. This is intentional. It is designed to make Roma apologise for being vegetarian.
Annalise exhales loudly through her nose. “Quiche is just a legitimized omelette.” Roma can tell that Annalise thinks this is a clever comment. Derision oozes from her invisibly.
“I think the key here is ‘legitimized,’” Roma retorts. It gives her quiche gravitas.
She will finish the hem by hand, using small, delicate stitches, which will sting her fingers and possibly even make them bleed. The uniqueness, she knows, is worth it.
“Da-ad! Can we turn the heating on? It’s freezing in here.” There’s no point in asking their mother, even though she’s the one in the room with them, because that’s not the kind of family decision their mother likes to make. Annalise Marie Kondoed her room on the first day of the holidays, so she no longer has any socks. Annalise is yelling, so their mother, who is reading again, shoots her a dark look.
“No. Put a sweater on. It’s character-building,” their father shouts this back.
“How?” Roma asks, quietly, almost to herself. “How is it character-building to feel uncomfortable? What sort of character does that build?” Her father can’t hear her, her mother pretends not to hear her, Annalise looks over.
“Yeah, good point. Da-ad! How is it character-building exactly?”
“Annalise, do stop shouting. Go into the living room and have a proper conversation with your father.” She has had to put her book down and turn her face fully towards Annalise. She clearly means business this time. Annalise rolls her eyes and leaves the room. Their mother turns back to her book and Roma starts assembling the ingredients for the quiche.
Despite what Annalise says, Roma’s quiche is a triumph. Annalise is just grumpy because she had to be brought out of bed for dinner.
“I was warm in there,” she says, glancing darkly at their father.
“I do wish you wouldn’t go under the covers with your outside clothes on,” their mother complains in a tired voice.
“They haven’t been outside. I haven’t been outside. It’s too cold.”
Roma wears her dress. The concert is long and dull. The music, which is something ancient that has been unearthed by the players in what they clearly feel is an impressive move, should have been left in whatever dusty box it had been consigned to. The hall is icy cold. Alexander is emotionally distant.
At the end, shivering, something inside Roma snaps.
“Why on earth did you bring me, if you were going to mostly ignore me?” she asks in a tone which is reasonable until the end of the question.
“Oh. I didn’t mean to ignore you.” Alexander seems astonished to find Roma is still there. “It’s great to see you. I’ve been a bit distracted because I fancy the cellist.”
“The cellist?” Roma looks again at the mousey girl with the large glasses who is still clutching her cello. “Really?”
“Yes, a bit. I don’t suppose she gets many offers, so that ups my chances, don’t you think?”
“That seems a bit…calculating.” Roma says, looking carefully at Alexander’s face. It looks haughty and not as attractive as she had remembered. “Well, good luck with that. I’m going to get the bus.”
“Don’t you want me to drive you?”
“Won’t that interfere with your plans?”
“Yes, a bit. Good point. Sorry.”
Roma rolls her eyes. She’s very good at this, having had to employ it to vent her emotions for most of her life. “We’ll always have chemistry!” Roma says as she dashes out, loving her words, even if she is the only one to appreciate them. It cheers her up.
Outside, in the darkness, the night is not colder than the hall. In fact, this is such a stark, counter-intuitive sensation that Roma actually feels warmer. She stands at the bus stop, wobbling a bit on her heels – why does she always forget about the cobblestones?—and tries not to meet the eye of the man also standing there. Strangers have a way of getting attached to Roma, and she hasn’t worked out why. She tries to give off the same unfriendly vibes her mother does in the same situation, but somehow it doesn’t work. This man, however, remains silent. She likes that about him.
“How was the concert?” her mother asks, as she lets herself in at the front door.
“Meh,” Roma says, as a place-holder while she takes off her shoes. “It was really boring. I was freezing the whole time. I also can’t remember why Alexander and I are friends.”
“Huh,” her mother gets up from the couch and gives her a hug. “Beautiful dress. You could wear that to a May Ball.”
“I might. It has sleeves and it’s always cold in Edinburgh.”
After they graduate, Roma and Juliette take a traveling tour of Italy. In Rome, Roma’s name seems to confuse the desk clerk at the small, boutique hotel they have booked. The hotel is surprisingly cheap, especially considering how pretty it is. “Value for money,” Juliette has corrected several times. She has a job lined up for September with an advertising agency in London – everything she says now is spin. Roma is going to do a Masters in Oxford, so they’ve already worked out how long the journey between the two locations will take. That way they can spend weekends at each other’s flats. It all seems to be panning out and this removes quite a lot of her anxiety about the future.
Everywhere in Italy is hot. They skip meals in favor of gelato in a bid to cool off. The meals they consume in the too-short interludes between train journeys are mostly from vending machines containing limp mozzarella and tomato sandwiches on soggy ciabatta.
It will be years later before Roma perfects how to travel Italy: pasta every night.
They can’t get in to watch any opera, which is slightly shockingly expensive, so Roma doesn’t get to wear the dress she made that Christmas she had made a play for Alexander. It’s a shame, because it takes up more than half of her backpack space. She has not perfected packing yet, either.
Once in Oxford, Roma realizes this is the city for her. She vows never to leave. She avoids a relationship with a Canadian just in case he wants to return after Uni. She is sure Quebec is lovely – actually, she isn’t: it sounds far too cold for far too much of the year – but she doesn’t want to have to find out.
After bumping into him at a house party, Roma discovers that Alexander is in Oxford too.
“I haven’t seen you in years!” He shouts at her over the music. It’s a DJ now, but before that there had been live music, which Roma infinitely preferred.
“It hasn’t been that long.” Roma resists the urge to roll her eyes. “It hasn’t even been two years. How did it go with the cellist?”
“Exactly!” Roma says, and it’s clear from the thumbs up and nod that Alexander responds with that he hasn’t heard her. “Are you studying?”
“Noooo. This is my gap year.”
“Oh. What are you doing?” Everyone else she knows who is taking a gap year has gone travelling.
“Going to house parties.”
“I mean during the day.”
Roma looks at him sceptically. “For a year?”
“I don’t know. I’m really enjoying it. I might do it for longer.”
This makes Roma feel angry and she’s not sure why. She files the feeling to analyse later. She hopes the band comes back.
Even five years after having the twins, Roma’s rib cage never seems to go back to the size it was before. She’s not quite as sylph-like, even though her waist is still slim. She makes sure she keeps the weight off, like it’s part of her identity. The dress she made for the concert that time doesn’t quite fit, though, under the arms.
Roma stands in her bedroom in her strapless bra and pants with the dress in her hands and considers what to do. Would anyone want it? She turns it inside out on the bed and looks at her careful stitching. She thinks critically. It’s still a lovely dress but it’s unlikely that there will ever be another person with her exact measurements.
She doesn’t have a daughter. Neither does Annalise. Juliette’s daughter is coming up for the right age, but is built like Juliette. It’s a shame because the greeny-blue would match her eyes.
If the Salvation Army accepts it, they are welcome to it.
The bag for the Salvation Army sits in the bottom of Roma’s wardrobe for three years.
Later – twenty-three years after they last meet, to be precise – Roma sees Alexander at Juliette’s funeral. The last decade and a half, since they have been in the same place at the same time, has been slightly unkind and Alexander looks old. Roma is unaware that Alexander and Juliette were still in touch. He has certainly never been to the hospice.
Alexander practically runs across the room to greet her.
“Roma! You look…” His eyes are wide with appreciation, and Roma feels a bit as though she is a meal he is about to devour. He bobs his head from side to side looking behind her. “Are you here alone?” She doesn’t feel alone because it still feels as though Juliette is here.
“Yes husband, but not here. He’s in Athens for a conference. He offered to come back, but he’d only just flown out, so it didn’t seem…practical. Juliette’s always on at me to be practical. They gang up on me, rather, about that.”
“So he’s not here?” Although he isn’t, Alexander’s voice sounds as though he is licking his lips.
“No,” Roma sighs. She can feel the energy leaving her and suddenly today feels like a chore. She’d really like to chat to Juliette about it, but that’s no longer possible and this fact is suddenly, sickeningly sad.
Annalise is picking the boys up after school for her and this feels like a failure. She knows she’s being stupid and that everything she is feeling is just chemicals and electrical impulses, but this doesn’t diminish their power to make her feel gloomy, to make this pain inside her torso swell.
“Look, sorry, I should really get to my goddaughter.” She is only partly saying this to get away. When Roma looks over, she sees Juliette’s daughter, who is only fifteen, resting against Juliette’s ex-husband. It looks as though she has crumpled. She should probably give them a moment.
They haven’t spent much time together in the last ten years, and now they will be living together. At least they had time to plan this, with Juliette’s full approval.
Roma skirts the room before she sits down gently beside Emma.
“How’s it going, kiddo?”
Emma smiles with her mouth but her beautiful eyes are filled with tears. She sniffs. Roma nudges her and then uses that same arm to hug her.
“It’s going to be okay.” This is a lie. Emma will miss Juliette forever. Roma knows this because the same applies to her. She has never had to do anything before without Juliette being there as a kind of backup, a cheerleader, a sounding-board. She’s always found it helpful to have Juliette there to remind her to think critically. “Later,” she says. “Let’s get out of here and go for a drive. I’ve got something in the car for you.”
She’s remade the dress for Emma. It’s the least she can do. It’ll be a luckier dress for Emma than it has ever been for Roma. Because the unluckiest thing has already happened to Emma and life can only get better. She wonders if this is a comforting or terrible idea to have. Juliette keeps telling her that she is growing increasingly sentimental. Juliette keeps Roma on the straight and narrow. Kept.
Sarah Mitchell-Jackson writes prose and poetry. Her work has appeared in The Critical Pass Review, Really System, Gravel, Firefly Magazine, The Drabble, on the Conium Review, Atomic Flyswatter and Dillydoun Review websites and the No Extra Words podcast. She recently won the Channillo Short Story Prize, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Queen’s Ferry Press Best Small Fictions award. Her novel, Ashes, was published by Lorelei Press.