When Lizzy mentioned to her older sister, Barbara, that she could plot her life by her fashion choices or, more precisely, by the shops where she bought her outfits, Barbara snorted.
Barbara said derisively, "Really? I suppose I can plot my life in books. Do you remember when I'd feign headaches so I could stay home from school to read the new Famous Five book? And then there was my Anne Frank Diary phase...."
Lizzy stopped listening. Instead, she was thinking about a navy and white seersucker dress her mother had sewn for her when she was eight. It had a circular skirt, and a rose appliqued patch at the waist. When Lizzy spun, it flared out, and she could pretend she was Rita Moreno from her favorite film Westside Story.
Later, she got out her old photo albums and flicked through her life. She spent her early teenage years in the school uniform of navy sweaters and A-line skirts from British Home Stores always bought with plenty of 'growing room.' And there she was at a school disco dressed head to toe in Tammy Girl. Lizzy smiled at the memory of the polyester halter neck dress with an orange and brown sunflowers pattern that wasn't done justice by the black and white snap. The front seams didn't align, making her Mum sigh at the shoddy sewing, but at the time, Lizzy thought she looked like Joanna Lumley in The New Avengers. Lizzy studied her lovely legs and 'Purdey,' haircut named after Lumley's character in the show. Although, she admitted to herself that she never really had the cheekbones to carry off the short bowl cut.
Lizzy turned the page and came face to face with her new romantic period. She favored pale-colored ruffled shirts from Wallis and startling white stilettos from Dolcis. Lizzy giggled as she remembered dancing to the song 'Fade To Grey’. During the chorus, she and her best friend Bethan would dramatically sweep their hand across their face a couple of times and then raise their fists in the air. It made her feel powerful, but it probably drove the boys away. They always asked the girls shuffling around their handbags to slow dance.
Not many photos from her University years, but she remembers them being spent in jeans from Top Shop. There was one Polaroid of her with fluffed out hair in a long taffeta dress from Monsoon. Exeter University held balls at the end of the academic year, and for her first one, she'd bought a gown that was much too big but on sale because of a broken zip. Lizzy took it in and replaced the zip by hand, silently thanking her Mum for teaching her how.
Lizzy didn't want to think about her work years; long decades spent typing in beige offices for unremarkable men making remarkable salaries. She knew she dressed exclusively in floral skirts and shiny ankle boots or pumps from Marks and Spencer. There was one photo of her outside a pub in Blackheath; she was wearing a sensible long wool wrap-coat from Jane Norman that she'd spent a month's salary on. Another showed her at a friend's wedding in a sharp blazer with massive shoulder pads and a saucer-shaped fascinator with a pheasant feather. Even in the photo, the feather looked like it was waving in surrender.
Lizzy slammed the album shut. After taking early retirement, Lizzy was living on a tiny pension and couldn't afford high-street fashion anymore. So, in desperation, she’d started visiting charity shops.
She got the idea from a man in her adult art class. Harry told her he only wore things he found. He described tipping himself headfirst into a skip outside a shopping center to retrieve a sweater; Harry would unpick it and use the yarn to knit a scarf. Lizzy could remember her mother picking up old jumpers from the church jumble sale, unraveling them, and re-knitting hats. At the time, she was ashamed she had to wear other people's discarded clobber, but now according to Harry, she could save the planet by upcycling cast-away clothes. Still, Lizzy drew the line at foraging for clothes like a squirrel looking for nuts; instead, she started shopping in the charity shops that dotted the high street. She thought it was a win-win situation; she reduced her carbon footprint, saved money, and contributed to a worthy cause. The only thing that made Lizzy blanch was many items she had worn in the '80s were now classified as vintage.
Lizzy was looking for something to wear to Barbara's sixtieth birthday party in February. She found a turquoise velvet skirt at the back of her wardrobe, an old favorite from her mid-forties. She was still going on blind dates arranged by friends and family, thinking she might find 'the one.' Lizzy was pleased she could still fit into it, especially as she had overindulged at Christmas. Studying herself in the mirror, she thought she could get away with wearing the skirt if she sewed up the slit that went up to her thigh. It showed off her knees, which she hated to admit, now resembled Winston Churchill.
As she ran her hand up her thighs, smoothing the velvet, Lizzy thought about the last time a man had run his hands over her. She struggled to believe it was almost ten years prior.
Barbara had introduced Lizzy to Tim, saying, "Tim is such a sweet man. He's been dealing with all my legal bits and bobs for years. Ever so patient, and he's tall." Tim had lived with his partially paralyzed mother, caring for her until she passed away the previous year, so Barbara explained he hadn't had a lot of relationships. Lizzy was in a rollercoaster relationship with her married boss, so she said yes just to save her from another evening waiting for the phone to ring.
Tim was a pleasant surprise. Over a glass of wine, he asked Lizzy what she liked to do, and he listened so that on their second date, he bought tickets to the National Theatre's production of Frankenstein because she’d mentioned how much she loved Benedict Cumberbatch. But, on the night, Tim was crestfallen when they discovered Jonny Lee Miller was taking the role of the monster. His eyes, behind his glasses, made her think of a puppy that was used to getting kicked, so she told him it didn't matter.
Tim was a rambler, and after a short time, asked Lizzy if she'd like to go away to the Cotswolds for a walking weekend. Lizzy found out Tim had booked two rooms when they reached the hotel. Her heart sank; she'd already made up her mind to sleep with him that weekend. All that had happened in their two months of dating so far was a tipsy fumble after an episode of 'Lewis.'
After checking in, Tim insisted they start the 'Walk Your Way Winter Bingo Challenge.' Lizzy surprised herself by enjoying looking for edible berries and listening for birdsong. Tim had packed a flask of mulled wine, suggesting they stop at The Rollright Stones.
As Lizzy sipped the fragrant wine, Tim told her about the legend of the stones, how they were supposed to be a king and his knights, turned to stone by a witch. to which Lizzy replied , "Witches always get a bad rep. They were usually single women ostracized and left to fend for themselves." Maybe it was the heady effect of the wine or the thin atmosphere affecting Tim, but after Lizzy finished talking, he grabbed her. Pushing her against the tallest stone, he kissed her and lifted her tweed skirt. It was over as quickly as it started, and Tim apologized for his behavior. Secretly, Lizzy was thrilled; the sex had been nothing to write home about, but that Tim could be so spontaneous was what turned her on. Unfortunately, Tim was never that adventurous again. They started sleeping together, but always in bed and mainly with Tim on top.
Lizzy knew she didn't love Tim, but she enjoyed his company, so she decided to ask him to come and live with her. She bought a meal for two from Marks and Spencer. It came with a three-course Indian dinner and wine, so all she had to do was pop some packets in the microwave. Lizzy wore her velvet skirt and chilled the wine. After the onion bhaji starter, Lizzy topped up Tim's glass and said, "I've been thinking.....would it make sense for you to move in here?" Tim pushed his new glasses back up his nose and cleared his throat. Lizzy noticed he had wax in his hair and wore a floral slim-fitting shirt, so unlike his regular Oxford button-downs. Tim's cheek flushed as he said, "Oh Lizzy, I've loved our time together, and I really want to carry on seeing you, but I want to see other people, too. I've missed out all those years I was caring for Mum. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret it for a single second, but I need not to be tied down for now. Of course, you must see other people too. That's only fair".
Lizzy was speechless. She had decided to settle for less and was being turned down. And, looking back, she still couldn't quite believe that she just got the chicken tikka main course and carried on as if everything was fine. Tim met a woman named Madeline two months after that. They had a whirlwind romance. Got married three months after their first date. They even invited Lizzy to the evening reception, and each Christmas, she got a card from them and their four children.
Lizzy gave up on dating, making do with her 'water dancer vibrator' that one of her colleagues had given her as a joke in the Secret Santa gift swap in her office. Lizzy had used it one night after watching Samantha using a similar device in 'Sex and the City.' The strength of her response amazed her. Since then, she'd replaced it several times.
Lizzy opened her dresser and took out a practically new cashmere black turtleneck she'd found at the St Martha's Hospice Charity Shop. She thought the donations at hospice charity shops were better, probably because they were from older people who had died. This was a slightly morbid thought, but Lizzy also admitted beggars couldn't be choosers. She splashed out on getting the jumper cleaned and offered a silent prayer of gratitude to the woman who had previously owned it for having such good taste. Pulling it over her head like a soft hug, Lizzy thought it went well with the blue of the skirt. Thinking about Tim made her feel unsteady, so she opened her bedside drawer and took out her 'water dancer' mark three. As she lay back on her bed, she realized the slit was actually quite handy.
Lizzy wasn't looking forward to the party. Her sister had married Jeff, her first boyfriend, and had the prescribed two point five children where the point five was a rather smelly Welsh corgi. The corgi was long gone, as was Jeff, one buried in the garden and one buried in the highlands of Scotland with his second wife. They owned a smallholding and made gluten-free baked goods, which they sold at farmers' markets. Lizzy always agreed with Barbara when she poked fun at Jeff's new lifestyle, but Lizzzy knew that secretly Barbara admired him for completely changing the course of his life.
The divorce was amicable, and Lizzy knew Barbara had invited Jeff and his new wife to the party. They had even offered to bake a flourless carrot cake as Barbara's birthday cake, but Barbara declined, and told Lizzy, "Who wants a carrot cake for a celebration?" So instead, Barbara ordered herself a giant chocolate meringue confection with gold leaf sprinkles and edible flowers from a French patisserie. The cake looked like it had arrived from a banquet thrown by Marie Antoinette.
When Lizzy first arrived at her sister's neat semi-detached home, her uncle, the only surviving member of her mother's generation, greeted her. After a hug that went on a beat too long, he said, “Well, still a spinster, I see. I could never work out what was so wrong that you scared the fellers away.” Lizzy replied, "Still a bachelor, I see, but I think we all know why you scared the ladies away," and with that, she escaped to the children’s room.
After the singing of, 'Happy Birthday,' Barbara cut the cake, the knife screaked, and the top of the cake tumbled onto the floor where Barbara's current dog wolfed it up. “I bet you wish I’d baked you a solid carrot cake now don’t you?” Jeff shouted. Barbara ignored him and Lizzy helped her salvage what they could of the meringue.
As Lizzy was eating her cake, she felt a hand on her bottom. Spinning around, she came face-to-face with her uncle, who was so startled he upended his plate all over her. He apologized, yet Lizzy was furious, and knew it wasn't just about her ruined cashmere.
Usually, she would have stayed until the end and offered to help her sister with the cleaning up, but the whole circus around the cake cutting suddenly left her feeling bone-tired. So she slipped away without saying goodbye.
Once home, she got into her pajamas and curled up on her sofa with a glass of wine to watch the news. The newscaster said, "Two more patients have tested positive for coronavirus in England. That brings the total number of UK cases to twenty." Lizzy switched the television off just as the newscaster confirmed that five hundred cases had resulted in seventeen deaths in Italy.
By the end of April, lock down had kept Lizzy in her house for six weeks. She saw no real reason to get dressed up. Her sister called once a week to scare her with the latest news about whom amongst her friends had succumbed, but it was just her and the radio for company for the rest of the time. Lizzy ordered several sweat pants from an online company called 'Colorful Comfort' when their advertising slogan caught her eye, 'comfy for your body and good for the earth.' The garments were all made in Portugal from sustainable organic cotton. Lizzy liked this idea. More and more, she became aware of the dire state of the planet and her contribution with all her fast fashion and easy supermarket shopping. She even toyed with the idea of planting some vegetables in her small neat garden after the plastic pot of pears she ordered from Sainsbury's showed up with a label that said grown in Argentina, packed in Thailand. To her, it seemed the coronavirus was like some cosmic payback for destroying the planet.
Lizzy celebrated her birthday with a Zoom call from Barbara and a gluten-free raspberry and vanilla sponge sent by Jeff. She was wearing an old Primark t-shirt and her 'Comfy' pants. Lizzy pretended she was fine when Barbara asked how she was, saying, “Solitude has been the terrain of my life. It might not have been a life I would have chosen exactly, but it is one I have come to like.” Even to her ears, that had a hollow ring, but Barbara either decided to believe her or knew there was nothing she could do. Either way, Barbara didn't challenge her.
Lizzy had given up on getting dressed altogether during the second lockdown and felt herself breaking into pieces through loneliness. Then, one Saturday, at the age of fifty-eight, an angel appeared. She turned on the television, and a vision in sequins foxtrotted across the screen. The popularity of 'Strictly Come Dancing' had bypassed Lizzy. She preferred watching gritty murder mysteries rather than celebrity reality television shows, yet watching an older woman shimmy her way through 'Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel,' sent a tingle up her spine.
Lizzy found out from listening to Radio Four that a group of fans met on Zoom each week to discuss the show, and she joined the group. Each Saturday, they'd log on to Zoom and watch the show together dressed as if they were actually in the audience. So from then on, Lizzy spent her week planning the outfit she would wear. She got her Mum's old hand-operated sewing machine down from her attic and started adding ruffles to skirts and sequin ribbons to blouses. The group's younger members noticed her unique clothes and asked where she got them. When Lizzy explained she made them they asked her to show them how she did it, so Lizzy started giving sewing lessons online.
Eventually, life went back to something like normal, and Lizzy volunteered to teach needlework and dressmaking at the Adult Education Centre. She joined a ballroom dancing class and even made costumes for some of her classmates when they entered competitions. She realized she had actually made a life she liked.
After coming home from her friend Mavis's house after the final of 'Strictly,' she hung up the pink chiffon dropped-hem dress she had made especially for the evening. Barbara texted her to ask who she'd voted for on the show. Lizzy smiled as she texted in return, I never vote. I'm just in it for the life-saving properties of the shimmies and the sequins.