The Dressmaker's Gift

I ran my fingers over the words and my eyes filled with tears at the sight of her name, and mine, written there. The wide brown tape had lost its stickiness over the years and it lifted away from the cardboard as I touched it, crackling softly. I brushed away my tears with my sleeve and opened the box.

The pile of papers within looked as though they’d been hastily – and somewhat randomly – thrown in in no particular order, the roughly sorted remnants of my mother’s life that had made it on to the ‘keep for Harriet’ pile landing in a brown box instead of a black bin bag.

I spread them out across my bedroom floor, sorting official documents – her out-of-date driving licence and passport – from copies of my old school reports and the handmade birthday cards that I’d given her over the years. I cried again at the sight of the clumsy, childish drawings of the two of us hand in hand, alone together. But I smiled through my tears as I realised that even at that early age I’d added fashionable touches in the form of large buttons down the front of our dresses and brightly coloured handbags to match. The handwriting inside the cards ranged from laborious nursery school printing to a rounded primary school script, heartfelt messages of love that she’d treasured enough to hold on to for safekeeping. Maybe I imagined it but it seemed to me that, even after all these years, those pictures were scented – very faintly – with the perfume that she’d always worn. The sweetly floral smell brought back a vivid memory of the black bottle with a silver top sitting on her dressing table, a French perfume called Arpège.

And yet, my pictures and messages hadn’t been enough. They hadn’t been able to pull her out of the quicksand of loneliness and sorrow that had eventually overwhelmed her, dragging her down so deep that the only escape she could find was death. Her name was one of the ultimate ironies in a life that had been anything but felicitous. The only time she had seemed really happy was when she played her piano, losing herself in the music she made as her hands floated effortlessly across the keys. My throat closed around a lump of grief as solid as a stone as I sorted the cards into a careful pile: the evidence that my mother had loved me so much, but that love, ultimately, hadn’t been able to save her.

When, at last, I was able to set the other papers aside and dry my eyes, I turned my attention to a bundle of photographs at the bottom of the box.

At the top of the pile there was one which made me catch my breath. It was a picture of her cradling me in her arms, my baby hair a halo of thistledown, catching the sunlight which streamed in from the window alongside us. The light, which made her look like a Renaissance Madonna, bathed my baby features in gold as well and it was as if I was illuminated by the love that shone from her eyes as she gazed at me. On her wrist, clearly visible, was the gold charm bracelet that I now wear. My father gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday, explaining that it had belonged to my mother and to her mother before her. I’ve worn it every day since. In the photograph, I could make out some of the charms that hang round my own wrist today – the tiny Eiffel Tower, the bobbin of thread and the thimble.

My father must have taken the picture, I realised, once upon a time when it was just the three of us and we were enough. When we were everything.

I set the print aside. I’d find a frame for it and take it back to school with me so that it could sit on the windowsill by my bed and I could see it each day without having to worry about it upsetting my father or irritating my stepmother, this reminder of a Before which they would prefer to forget. As if my presence in their house wasn’t already enough.

There were several school photos in the box too: pictures of me in my white blouse and navy jumper, sitting stiffly in front of the photographer’s sky blue backcloth, smiling my cautious smile. She’d kept them all, one year after the next, my strawberry blonde hair pulled back from my face by a dark blue hairband in one, and drawn into a neat ponytail in another, but my expression of wary watchfulness never changing.

I picked the last of these school photos from the very bottom of the box. As I opened the cream card cover, another photo fell into my lap. It was an old black and white print, curling and yellowed with age. Probably long forgotten, it must have got stuck beneath the mount by mistake.

Something about the picture – the smiles of the three girls it depicted perhaps, or the elegantly cut lines of the suits they wore – caught my attention. There was an air of continental chic about them. As I looked more closely, I realised that I was right. They were standing in front of a shop window above which was painted the number of the building – 12 – and the words Delavigne, Couturier. When I carried the photo to the window to examine it in the better light, I could make out the words on the enamelled sign affixed to the building, unmistakeably French, which read Rue Cardinale – 6e arrondissement.

I recognised the girl on the left. With her delicate features, fair hair and gentle smile she bore more than a passing resemblance to my mother. I was sure this must be my grandmother, Claire. I vaguely remembered her image from looking through old family albums (where were those albums now?) and my mother telling me that her mother had been born in France. She never said much more about her though, and it only now struck me as strange that she had changed the subject whenever I asked questions about this French grandmother.

Sure enough, when I turned the picture over, written on the back in a looping hand were three names: Claire, Vivienne, Mireille, and the words Paris, Mai 1941.

I knew I was clutching at straws, but somehow that old photograph – a fragment of my mother’s family history – became an important part of my heritage. There was so little left of that side of my family that this tenuous link to one of my ancestors took on huge significance for me. It had sat in a frame, alongside the mother-and-baby photo, and it then kept me company through the remainder of my school days and on to university. And even though I’d already begun to take a keen interest in the fashion business before I’d discovered the forgotten photo in the cardboard box, the picture of those three elegant young women standing on that street corner more than forty years ago certainly played its part in piquing my fascination. Maybe the love of fashion was already in my blood, but the photograph helped to shape my dreams. It had seemed like fate when I tracked down the address – 12 Rue Cardinale – on a school trip to Paris and found myself standing in front of a plate glass window bearing the name Agence Guillemet, Relations Publiques (spécialiste Mode). In that moment, my future was decided. That sign opened up a whole career path that I’d never imagined existed, and drove me on to apply for an internship in fashion PR once I’d finished my degree in Business Studies with French.

I’d hesitated before contacting the agency, lacking the confidence to make an approach out of the blue, and receiving no encouragement from my father. If anything, Dad had always tried to discourage my interest in fashion, seeming to disapprove of my choice of career. But, as if egging me on, my grandmother Claire and her two friends had smiled at me from the black and white photo propped on the desk beside my laptop, as if to say, ‘At last! What are you waiting for? Come and find us!’

And so here I am, in Paris on a September afternoon, straightening my jacket and smoothing my hair into place before I wheel my suitcase along the busy pavement and press the buzzer on the door of the office. The plate glass windows, half-covered by blinds bearing the Agence Guillemet logo that have been pulled down to keep the glare of the afternoon sun at bay, reflect my anxiety back at me and I realise my heart is beating fast.

With a click, the door unlocks itself and I push it open, stepping into a softly lit reception area.

French grey walls are hung with framed copies of magazine covers – Vogue, Paris Match, Elle – and fashion shots. Even at first glance, I can tell they bear the trademark styles of photographers like Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier and Annie Leibovitz. A pair of minimalist sofas, upholstered in a highly impractical ivory linen, face one another across a low table upon which sits a selection of the latest fashion publications in a variety of languages. For a moment, I imagine sinking down on to one of them and kicking off the shoes that are pinching my travel-swollen feet.

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