With thanks to my friends in the FishTank, March 2002

by oosh

It was absurd of me, I know, but that dress just caught my eye. It was in the window of one of those really expensive Oxford Street boutiques, and I don't know what possessed me even to go up and take a closer look. Yes, it was beautifully cut, and from a distance the fabric seemed muslin-light – though, as I approached, I was amazed to see that it was a fine knit of finest wool; and the waist was so artfully gathered that the skirt fell into lovely soft pleats. I liked the colour, too: a very light coffee-beige, almost creamy, with little amber beads upon the hem. Somehow it looked light and caressing, and in the hot summer evening I fancied that I'd feel blithe and refreshed in a dress like that. Could I have worn it? Once, definitely. But now? Well, I'd not want to have to clean a wine-stain out of such a thing. And when, steeling myself, I looked at the price-tag, I knew it was fantasy: I am not in the same league as those who can afford a dress like this. Nearly six hundred pounds? Not this year.

I took one last, regretful look. Really, there was almost nothing else to see: the display was brightly-lit, but the store behind was dark, it being nearly six. They'd have been closed for almost half an hour.

But then, quite by chance, as I stared pensively into the gloom beyond, I caught a glimpse of movement, right at the back. A white cuff, a hand on a black shoulder, moving to get a better grip. The shop assistants, still there after all this time.

And suddenly, as my eyes became accustomed to the dark, my world turned on its side: it was as if the shop window had become the thick glass floor of Cousteau's ship, and I the uninvited witness of deep-sea mystery.

Their dresses were black, their cuffs white – their uniform, I suppose. But I could see from that lovely, upraised, dark-nyloned knee, from the languorous, under-sea movements, from the gracefully tilted heads and grasping fingers, that this was no casual good-night kiss.

Long ago, one of my friends tried to explain to me how the smallest, most subtle things elude the scientist: even the act of watching disturbs the intimate motions of what is observed.

And so it was with my two creatures of the deep: like two startled fishes, they sprang apart and hovered, suddenly darting, suddenly still. One hand hung in the air like a tendril, expressing sorrow, frustration, anger, hurt.

I did not see the eye that turned on me in anger – but I felt it. And then, amid the hubbub of the street, I feared that I heard a voice from inside, shrill with reproach, and another, low and reassuring.

Horrified at the terrible change my presence had wrought, I turned and moved away — only to stop a few yards further on, too ashamed to run from the scene of an accident that I myself had caused by my idle staring. Instead, I stood there, an island in the middle of the broad pavement, wishing that somehow I could undo the harm, while people flowed to and fro around me. I struggled with the idea of going back, banging on the door, protesting: “Don't stop for me, you fools! Do you think I don't understand? I'm your sister!” But I knew it was impossible.

And then, half-turning despite myself, I saw them come out, noses in the air, not a glance at one another. One strode out to the edge of the pavement, nearest the traffic, while the other swiftly locked the shop door. Then, side by side, yet on opposite sides of the pavement, they walked toward and past me, not seeing me.

I had to go that way myself; and so for a few moments I followed them, wondering: for now it was as if, despite their common uniform, they were utter strangers. Like friends no longer on speaking terms, they were as far apart as they could possibly be on this broad and crowded pavement. Yet, for all the distance between them, they seemed to move in parallel.

For a little while I observed them, scarcely believing what I saw. I almost laughed, as the crowds hurried past them and me, that I alone could see the invisible silver thread that connected these two apparent strangers. Would it draw them back together again? Would they dare to join hands? Then, reproaching myself once more, I hastened my step and passed between them. And as I did so, I shuddered with a thrill of secret joy and pain, cut through by a filament of gossamer.

Often in the days that followed, I found my memory returning to that incident, and reliving that subtle mixture of elation and regret.

And then, one night in the small hours, I awoke thinking of them. I felt it again, that thing that I thought had passed through me. But it was still there, like an exquisite lightness; and as the invisible line began to tighten, there arose within me a kind of inexplicable, disembodied jubilation that I have seldom felt before. Despite the pain, I wanted to cheer, as the line tightened more and more, and gradually the hook tore up, up through my left lung, and into my heart.

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