Marilyn's Dress

     Looking at herself in the dressing table mirror, Margaret would toss her own hair. “What do you think, Josie? Do you like it?”

 

     “Yes! It looks wonderful, Mom.”

 

     “Marilyn wore it this way, when she was alive.”

 

    Josie would watch her mother dyeing her hair platinum blonde over the kitchen sink. “You won’t need to do this, not like Marilyn and me.”

 

    Those were their best times together, Josie hanging about the long, beautiful legs of her mother.

 

     “Happy birthday, Mr President, happy birthday to you...” Margaret, singing for the great man across the sea. President Kennedy was also dead.

    There were no friends for Josie’s mother on the island. The warders’ wives were mostly older than her or, Margaret would say, “From the other side of the tracks. They don’t like us because I’m English.” When Brandt was at work she played The Beatles and Little Richard on the record player, and the wives didn’t like that either.

    Josie’s best friend was Annetjie, the Colonel’s granddaughter who came to stay on the island, along with her mother and four siblings. Her father had been killed in a mining accident. He was the only white man amongst forty-five men who were in a lift when the cable snapped. It took a week before the bodies could be recovered. People said what a shame he had to die in that way.

    The girls played hide-and-seek in the lepers’ graveyard, and hopscotch on the parade-ground when the men weren’t using it. Sometimes they played with the boys and once, after they dared her - four boys ranging in age from five to eleven, their hands on their hips, crewcutted heads jaunty in expectant triumph - Josie shimmied up the flagpole until she could touch the flag.

 

    Best of all she enjoyed her private conversations with Annetjie behind the rows of haphazard, overgrown piles of rocks that stood for gravestones in the lepers’ cemetery. A few weeks before they had been there, on the other side of the island, between the old graves and the sea, where the land slopes gently, then falls sharply away into the rumble of water. Josie had a stick in her hand, and pointed to the north-west, where they could see only the horizon.

 

     “Look, you can see forever.”

 

     “Tell me about the pirates,” said Annetjie.

 

     “See there,” Josie said, “There’s an old pirate whose name is Blackbeard. He’s coming from far away across the ocean to fetch us. He’ll bring his ship offshore and row his skiff to the beach and take us away with him to find treasure.” She dug in the burnt sand with the stick. “He’s the president of his country... we’ll take prisoners along to row and President Blackbeard’ll give us turns to whip them.”

    A large oil tanker sailed slowly past; they had been coming more frequently because of the troubles in the Holy Land.

     “Josie, do you think we’d be able to swim out to President Blackbeard’s ship?”

 

     “Sure.” Josie shaded her eyes, scanning the ocean. They were quiet for a few minutes; from the quarry came sounds of the men digging. Josie scratched the lines of a boat in the earth. “My Dad says kaffirs can’t swim, that’s why they put them here. My Dad’s a good swimmer, he was champion when he was in the navy. Mom can’t swim, she hates the water.” Margaret had been pushed into a swimming pool when she was a little girl. “My Dad tells me stories about Alcatraz and Devil’s Island. He says all the best prisons are on islands, it’s the natural place to keep

dangerous men.”

    Josie crouches behind the rock watching the water swirl around her mother’s well-formed dancer’s calves. Her dress has again become trapped between her knee and the wet sand. She sucks at the ends of her hair, the faint taste of Sunlight soap on her tongue. She watches her mother intently. The sea makes way for Margaret, the white water froths around her shins, splashes up against her knees and thighs...

    Sundays on the island were different. Sundays brought with them the approval of her father. Brandt liked it when Josie put on her church dress and Margaret helped do her hair into one long plait. This, he said, was her golden ponytail. She was a unicorn, and she wore her horn at the back of her head.

    Sunday after Sunday, Brandt would tell Margaret, “I'm just going for a beer, Margie. I’ll catch up with you at church.” The rest of the week he called her Margaret. “Come on, champ,” he’d call to Josie. And they’d walk hand-in-hand to one of the other warder’s homes where the men would sit around on the small back porch looking at the orange earth, sipping from their beer glasses, talking about rugby, about handguns and rifles, and

about women. That dress of Josie’s, made on her mother’s Singer, had lace cuffs and a lace collar and a mauve satin ribbon at the neck.

     “Brandt, she’s looking so pretty, hey!” someone would say as they passed her from one lap to another.

 

     “Have a sip, skat. Hey, you don't mind do you Brandt?”

 

     “Nee, wat...”

 

    Josie would screw up her face. “Ugh! It tastes awful!” And the men would laugh.

 

    After a few drinks they’d forget about her. “You go ahead, champ,” Brandt would say, after he’d noticed her hovering, her hands behind her back, trying not to move around in the dusty backyard in case she got her clothes and shoes dirty. “I’ll catch up with you.”

 

    She’d look over her shoulder as she left the yard. Brandt, already oblivious of her, would be talking with the others. In the moments before Josie ran off to church to join her mother Margaret, her little sister Beth and God, her head would be filled with the sights and sounds of warders clinking beer bottles, scratching unshaven cheeks, bleary-eyed and comradely, each one drawn back into the circle of men...

    Sometimes Brandt’s brother Albert came to visit on the island. He’d been on the police force in Rhodesia but they’d kicked him out. Brandt would take Josie down to the quay to meet the boat. She’d listen out for the barks of the seals, and try to find their dark, blubbery forms under the water’s surface. They moved so well in their own world.

    Albert arrived on Friday night. Brandt had taken Josie to meet him. Later, well after she had gone to bed, she’d heard the men come home. They’d been at the pub, and Albert was shouting something about his boss at the factory where Brandt had found him a job. Josie had pretended to be asleep when they came into the room she shared with Beth.

     “Ag, moenie worry nie, boet, there's room enough for the two of us, she’s only little.”

     “Okay, boet, sien jou mre,” Brandt had slurred before lurching off to bed.

 

    It came back to Josie as she knelt behind the rock watching Margaret enter the sea: the sound of Uncle Albert taking off his clothes, the crumpled drop to the worn carpet, the movement of the sheets, the give of the mattress. He stank of fish and beer.

     “Hullo, Josie. It’s me, Uncle Albert.” His beard had prickled against her neck, through her fine blonde hair.

    Josie had kept quiet, breathing in a way she prayed would sound like sleep.

     “It’s so cold outside, let’s snuggle warm. Here, make your uncle warm.”

    Dad was a champion swimmer... Mom hated the sea... Dad called her ‘champ’, he loved her church dress, the collar of lace... Blackbeard’s gonna come from across the ocean... ag, moenie worry nie boet, there’s room enough for the two of us... happy birthday, Mr President, happy birthday to you...

    Beth had cried out, woken by Josie’s muffled protests, and the cries had woken Margaret. There had been a great deal of shouting and screaming, the little girls’ father telling their mother to calm down.

     “You’re hysterical, woman. Margaret, shut up! Calm down!” Then he’d hit her. With his fist. Against her eye. She fell down and he took her by the hair and dragged her out of the room.

    As Josie watches Margaret wade deeper into the sea, against the misty wand that has made the mainland disappear - perhaps forever - she can’t stop herself from remembering, and from not remembering. Lying in her bed, yes, the covers over her head, her shivering knees tucked in beneath her chin, sucking on her Sunlight-washed hair, an acrid, awful sweetness pervading the dark space beneath the blankets.

    ... And in the morning she found Margaret cleaning the stove. Brandt was in his warder's trousers with his braces over his bare chest and shoulders, having breakfast with Uncle Albert and giving orders to Margaret about how they wanted their eggs. They were laughing about something. Margaret’s hair was tied up in a doek. Her hands scrubbed faster and harder; when the brothers left the house Uncle Albert playfully slapped her bottom.

    Margaret finished polishing the stove and the floors and went outside to do the stoep. After a while the red floor was so gleamy Josie could see her face in there too. She closed her eyes and tried to pretend that she could no longer see but the sights came through her ears: the soft scooping of the polish, the dull scraping of the tin on the stoep floor, her mother’s panting for breath. She pushed her palms against her ears, tightly enough to hear the drone of the ocean. The little girl hung around waiting - hoping - for her mother to scold her for being underfoot.

    When she was finished Margaret stood on the stoep for a long time with the tin of polish in one hand and her rags in the other, staring at the big palm tree in front of the house, her forehead wet with sweat, the rise and fall of her breasts gradually calming. People walked past, some greeted her. She just stared at the palm tree.

    Finally she went into her bedroom and put on ‘Marilyn’s dress’. Before they’d come to the island she’d taken Josie on the train to Stuttafords in town with money she saved from her housekeeping. They had tea at the posh restaurant. Margaret said the dressmaker’s pattern and the material were precisely what she’d been looking for. She’d be able to make an outfit just like the one Marilyn wore in The Seven Year Itch, in the famous scene where her skirt billowed up around her thighs.

    Although she’d finished the dress before coming to the island, she’d not worn it before. It had a bodice that consisted of a halter-neck that gathered around the back of her neck, and from there descended frontwards, wrapping itself around each breast before being joined to the waistband and the pleated skirt below. Brandt had not allowed her to wear it.

    When she had it on, she sat quietly in front of her dressing table doing her hair and putting on makeup. She didn’t answer when Josie asked where she was going, not so much as a, you’re underfoot, Josie.

    When she left the house the girl followed her.

     “Go back inside, Josie.”

    So Josie kept her distance as Margaret made her way down to the little beach where the warders’ families  swam, only not Margaret because she hated the sea. Josie watched from behind the rock, the hem of her skirt getting damp because her knees were in the sand, as her mother took off her smart shoes and with Marilyn’s dress caught by the wind and flapping up around her thighs, walked into the sea...

    The water is rough as it comes up against the island. The beaches here are not like the ones on the mainland, they offer little shelter during the hot months of summer, and are stormier than the mainland’s during winter. Today is a cold, autumn day, and none of the familiar landmarks of the city can be seen, not even the cablecar that takes people to the top of the mountain.

    At first Margaret seems to manage as the waves break against her body, soaking her dress so that it clings to her, the salt must be like glue on her skin. She does not jump in the manner of bathers before a breaking wave, she only raises her arms slightly as the wall of water rolls into her. Each time she is rocked backwards. Now and then she loses her footing. The waves fall against her belly and breasts and move past her, leaving behind water that only reaches her knees. She wades further into the trough of sea before the next breaker hits her. The set of waves is

reaching its climax, each line hitting higher than the last. Josie gasps as her mother is swept under, but then Margaret bobs up again, flicking water from her face. Her sodden platinum blonde fringe is in her eyes. Another wave breaks over her and takes her under.

 

    Josie comes out from behind the rock calling, “Mom! Mom! Mommy!” She runs along the shoreline like a crab, sideways across the beach, gaining no sight of her mother, then moving back over her tracks, but there is only the white froth of the waves and beyond that, across a short expanse of water, the wispy beginnings of the sea mist.

 

     “Mommy! Mommy!”

 

    Josie wades into the water and is knocked over by a wave, then  is drawn seaward by the backwash which seems more fierce than that with which her mother had to contend. There is water in her nose and mouth and throat, and the salt stings her eyes. There is a terrible noise in her ears. She does not know which way is up. She has been covered by a cold blanket of sea.

 

    One moment she has scraped her head on something solid, it must be the sand at the bottom of the sea, and then the next she feels air on her face, and can take it into her lungs, and she is coughing. The set of waves seems finally to have spent itself, the sea becomes a little calmer, and Josie, falling to her knees, rising and lurching forward and falling again, scrambles out.

 

    Margaret is there, between some rocks to the westward side of the beach, bent over with her hands on her knees. She too, as Josie comes up to her, is coughing like mad. There are scratches on her legs and arms and face. She straightens herself up when she sees Josie, and puts a hand to her hair. Her dress is torn, drenched, her flesh patterned with goose-pimples.

    Josie sniffs hard, the mixture of snot and saltwater like angry little wasps inside her head. Margaret takes her hand. “Look at you,” she says, “you've got your dress all wet.”

    The girl laughs. “You have too, Mom.”

    The noon gun from the mainland goes off, the wind brings the sound across the strait, and in its wake Josie hears, for the first time today, the screeches of the seagulls. Mother and daughter make their way over the rocks and onto the path that leads to the settlement.

 

     “Mommy! You forgot your smart shoes!” Josie lets go her mother’s hand and runs back to where she saw Margaret leave the shoes. She has them now, and rejoins her mother.

    They walk between two rows of warders’ houses where, despite the cold weather, people sit on their stoeps, warders and their wives and their children. The island’s minister stands outside his house talking to the district surgeon who has come across from the mainland to conduct his medical tour. They all stare at Margaret and Josie. One of the warders whistles, an undulating, loud wolf whistle.  

~

    ... Josie sits on the quay, on one of the suitcases Margaret has packed during the night, while Brandt slept. The sun has not yet risen. Beth is asleep in Margaret’s arms. They had to pick their way through the small, clean warder’s house, around the sleeping forms of Brandt and his brother Albert, who slept in the sitting room. Now on the quay, waiting amongst their possessions, they listen to the water lapping against the wooden staves and the old tyres that buffer the sides of the boats as they dock alongside. They will have to wait until 10.00 a.m., when

the boat leaves.

    Without us to wake him, Josie thinks, he will not know. Brandt will still be asleep by the time the boat has disappeared into the mist on its way to the mainland.