The Dressmaker's Gift

Setting aside the bodice of the red evening gown, she sighed. Well, she’d made it to Paris, only to have the war interfere with her plans for a better life. She was still spending her days hunched over her meticulous stitching, she was still freezing cold most of the time, and she was hungrier than she had ever been at home.

She was overcome by a momentary surge of self-pity and homesickness at the thought of the family she’d left behind in Port Meilhon. She pictured her brothers’ cheerful grins as they came home to the cottage on the quayside: Théo ruffling her hair and Jean-Paul lifting the lid on the pot of cotriade she’d prepared for their supper to sneak a taste of the delicious fish stew, while Luc and Marc pulled off their boots at the front door. Did their shirts go un-mended now that she wasn’t there, and their socks un-darned? She missed the sound of their laughter and their gentle teasing, as well as the quiet reassurance of her father’s presence as he sat in his armchair splicing a rope or untangling a length of twine. It was funny, she thought, how instead of feeling too crowded when they were all in the tiny cottage together, the room had always felt too big and empty when they were away.

She shrugged off the feeling, telling herself that wallowing in self-pity wasn’t going to help anyone. As she stuck her needle carefully back into her mother’s pincushion, she reminded herself how far she’d come, despite the hardships. The city was still a place of infinite opportunity compared to the fishing village in Brittany. She just needed to make the effort, to get out a bit more so that those opportunities could find her.


There’s been another terrorist attack. The city is stunned with shock and the headlines scream their anguish around the world. Paris was already reeling from the brutal assault on staff at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January, and now gunmen have murdered almost a hundred concert-goers at the Bataclan Theatre, holding a group of survivors hostage for hours before the French police could end the siege. The reports flood in of lives taken, lives altered in unimaginable ways, sickening acts of brutality. They are difficult to read, but impossible not to.

Dad calls me. ‘Are you sure you’re safe? Why don’t you come home?’ he asks.

I try to reassure him that I’m surely as safe here as I would be anywhere, even though I feel sick with anxiety every time I walk down the street. My heart aches for the victims as their stories come out. Most of them were young, about the same age as Simone and me. But we try to stay focused on our work; the unremitting demands of the job force us all to carry on.

From nine to five, the office is busy with the hushed hum of conversations and the discreet chirp of telephones. I take it in turns with Simone to man the reception desk and I feel the weight of responsibility of being the first point of contact for Agence Guillemet’s clients. The company may be relatively small but it punches above its weight, numbering amongst its clientele several up-and-coming designers, a luxury accessories brand and a new eco-cosmetics company. Of course, the larger fashion houses have their own in-house PR teams, but Florence has carved a niche for herself in the daunting world of Parisian couture. She has a knack for spotting promising new talent and finding creative ways to promote the new kids on the fashion block. Over the years, she has earned the respect of her peers and developed an enviable network of contacts. So, as the days go by, it’s not unheard of for me to find myself making small-talk with a former supermodel who is developing her own line of swimwear, or the fashion editor of a glossy magazine, or an edgy young shoe designer and his muse who wears a skin-tight jumpsuit accessorised with a pair of the most vertiginous platforms I have ever seen, which are embellished with golden pineapples.

Florence also gives me opportunities to work alongside the account managers and I am inordinately proud of the first press release I help to compile. It’s for the launch of the shoe designer’s latest collection, which will be showcased at Paris Fashion Week in a fortnight’s time, and the account manager shows me the list of recipients and asks me to send it out. As I do so, an idea occurs to me.

‘Does anyone in the UK know about this guy’s designs?’ I ask.

‘Not yet. It’s hard for us to break into that market so we are focusing on Paris first.’

‘If I were to translate the press release and send it to a couple of buyers at some of the edgier London outlets, would that be okay?’

The account manager shrugs. ‘Feel free. We have nothing to lose, and perhaps it would be a good way to begin to gauge interest across the Channel.’

So I draft an introductory email and attach the translated release. After digging around a bit and making several phone calls, I come up with a few London contacts and then, with the approval of Florence and the account manager, I press send.

Simone is impressed. ‘Your first press release! We must celebrate this evening. I know a great bar we can go to. There’s live music on tonight and some of my friends will be there too.’ I’ve already learned how much she loves her music; she always has it playing in the apartment, and is usually plugged in to a pair of earphones when she’s out and about.

And so that night we head out, crossing the river and heading for the Marais district with its narrow streets and hidden squares. The police presence is even more evident than usual, with heavily armed officers patrolling the busier junctions. It’s a reassuring sight, even if it does make my heart race with the sense of fear that lurks just beneath the veneer of city lights and traffic fumes. Simone leads me past the Picasso museum and then we duck into a bar. An acoustic duo play on a small stage at one end of the crowded room over the buzz of chatter and laughter that spills around them.

Simone’s friends wave us over to the pair of tables they’ve pulled together and find chairs for us so that we can squeeze in too, adding our own drinks to the clutter of glasses and bottles. The musicians are good – really good, in fact. And I begin to relax and enjoy the setting and the company. Simone’s friends are a creative bunch and they include a gallery owner, a designer, an actress, a sound engineer and at least two musicians. I guess it’s Simone’s love of music that has cemented some of these friendships. I’m surprised at how easy it is to feel a part of this group of young Parisians. I never made any very close friends at school or at university and I realise now that I never felt I fitted in anywhere at all really. Perhaps that feeling stemmed from the sense of not belonging at home with my father and stepmother. Perhaps that undermined my confidence of my place in the world. For most of my life, I have dwelt in a sort of no man’s land where loneliness has been an easier option than trying to fit in. I always felt that there was a distance between me and my peers who hadn’t had to attend their own father’s wedding to someone new, shortly followed by their own mother’s funeral. Here, in this company of strangers, I don’t feel that I have to explain that I had been all my mother had left and that I had failed to be enough to make her want to stay in this world.

The sound engineer, who introduces himself as Thierry, brings another round of drinks and nudges Simone to move up so that he can pull his chair in between us.

He asks me questions about how I’m finding my job and how I like being in Paris, and I ask him about his work, which takes him to concerts at different venues across the city. I chat away, feeling more confident about speaking French now, and find myself relaxing and enjoying his company.

At first, the conversation among the friends is light and buoyant with smiles and laughter, but then, inevitably, the talk turns to the Bataclan terror attack. The mood around the table immediately turns sombre and I can see the trauma written on the faces of Simone and her friends as the still-raw pain that the terrorist act has cast over the city engulfs us all again. The Bataclan isn’t far from where we are sitting, and Thierry tells me that he knew the sound crew who were working that night. All of a sudden it feels very close to home. As I listen to his words, I watch the lines of pain that cut deep into his face, transforming his easy-going expression into a mask of grief. His friends got out and helped get the band and several members of the audience to safety, but the brutality of the act and the thought of the many young lives lost, or altered for ever through horrific wounds, both mental and physical, have changed the way people see their city. Just under the surface it seems that fear and distrust lurk everywhere.

‘Do you ever worry, when you’re working, that something like that might happen to you?’ I ask him.

Thierry shrugs. ‘Of course. But what can we do? You can’t let terror win. It becomes all the more important to resist the urge to give in to fear.’

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