Kate can’t remember when she stopped doing skirts and dresses. Eleven? Thirteen? She’s not sure she ever wore them outside of school. Still, here she is, supposedly advising her best friend, Chloe, on the perfect outfit for her new boyfriend’s posh work ball.
“Slinky!” Kate offers, as Chloe emerges in a blue silk dress. It’s the same shade as the touched-up photos in her mum’s brochures for summer coach tours to the Lakes. Personally, Kate would rather head there in winter, with a backpack – fewer people, snow and ice to hike through, granite to climb without being harried by tourists.
“Nah, it makes me look too hippy.” Chloe shakes her head, and Kate curbs a sigh. Whatever her friend means by hippy (Chloe is thinner than a silver birch!), it isn’t a laid-back comment on flower garlands and smoking peace.
Chloe disappears behind the changing-room curtains, thrusting the blue froth out a minute later. Kate places it with her friend’s other discards draped in a waterfall of rainbow fabric across Kate’s right arm. She looks at her watch and leans back against the wall, tired of standing. Two hours and counting now of Chloe’s trying on clothes, though this is still only the third shop and Chloe is only three outfits into her current selection. But this waste of time is only one thing that skirts and dresses have stacked against them in Kate’s eyes.
Her most anaphylactic reaction was at her elder sister Kim’s graduation. Kate was in the audience, clapping, with the academics on a raised stage in front. She looked up, and cringed. One unfortunate female tutor in a short skirt had her knees and legs in a normal composed sitting position. Un-extraordinary, unexposed, were it not for the revealing angle created by placing the students at a lower level.
Given the woman’s extremely low-cut top, the skirt might have been a deliberate choice rather than simply unfortunate. Still, Kate blushed for the don, as she caught a glimpse of black lace. She reddened too watching Kim clamber in and out of boyfriends’ cars, legs clamped together like an awkward foal. Or the harvest festival when her mum’s long floaty summer skirt had inflated like a giant jellyfish, as they were leaving the church…
On a few occasions, after a bottle of wine, friends pressed Kate into something considered appropriate for a girls’ night out. Each time, she felt slow and clumsy, skittering in borrowed stilettos. This even before the Legs eleven! comments and wolf whistles from strangers. Instead of complimented, she felt self-conscious, bordering on dirty.
Kate joked once about wishing for fins instead of legs. But a friend’s mate, Anna, had misunderstood this as the desire to be a siren. Anna had plunged into a detailed account of her exploits with married men, oblivious to Kate’s protest that she meant a better swimming stroke. Kate was equal parts intrigued and bemused by Anna, with her glittery false eyelashes and long cherry-coloured nails. Anna’s life sounded different, but fussy and complicated. Beneath the ‘what are men like’ laughter, her tone had an edge; she kept crossing, un-crossing, re-crossing her bare legs too – like a cicada or a corncrake, but without the music.
Kate’s fin-comment was nearest to the real reason for hiding her calves and thighs in jeans and baggy trousers. A strong-armed swimmer and climber, she knew her legs were a weak point when it came to moving fast. Hell, stilettos were closer to being useful than her actual lower limbs. Adapted correctly, lizard claws and spikes could help her climbing. Her own leg muscles were lame by comparison, merely adding extra weight for her to balance and adjust the rest of her body around.
“So?” Chloe flings the cubicle curtains wide again, and twirls around in a short tight pink thing. Probably, creped satin, Kate reckons, pulling this scrap of knowledge from a ragbag of memories dating back to her mum’s frustrated, and frustrating, sewing lessons. To Kate’s eyes, the skirt makes it look like Chloe is fashioning herself as a garden rose.
“Classy!” Kate tries, having already failed with slinky, glitzy, sleek, snazzy, glam, glittery, elegant and sexy.
Chloe smiles and, for a few seconds, Kate think this is it – Chloe’s found the right outfit, or Kate’s found the right words. All Chloe has to do now is find her credit card – eek! – and they can go get some food, finally! With luck, Kate might even make it to the climbing wall later too.
Chloe twirls again, this time to the mirror, this time stopping abruptly three-quarters of the way through, her smile fading.
“Nah, too bright, too summery!”
Chloe dives back through the curtains, then pushes this reject through a gap for Kate to hold with the others. For the nth time in the past hour, Kate thinks how lucky it is that she’s got strong arms, and how much fun she’ll have taking Chloe climbing next weekend.
S.A. Leavesley is a journalist, fiction writer, poet and editor, with flash publications including Jellyfish Review, The Nottingham Review, Oxford Today, Under the Radar, Elbow Room, Fictive Dream, The Ofi Press Literary Magazine and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine (forthcoming). Her second novella Always Another Twist is out in 2018.