SPECIMENS – A SHORT STORY BY SALLY ROBERTS

A young librarian – shall we say around thirty-two? – wore the same clothes every single day. Thick grey trousers, which were perhaps intended to sit directly on the waist but instead lingered around the belly button, accompanied a lilac jumper worn around the armpits and bobbly like dry moss. Brown brogues which let the puddles in when it rained covered dusty pink socks, secured well above the ankles. Her thin hair of an indistinguishable brown was always tied loosely in a perfunctory ponytail.

To simply look at her, one would suppose her wardrobe to accommodate a black pair of trousers, an apologetically green cardigan and perhaps a heavy brown velvet dress for formal occasions. This was a most reasonable assumption. However, like most reasonable assumptions, it was quite wrong.

The librarian’s flat consisted of two rooms. On opening the door you were first greeted by the organised formation of a small, round kitchen table, three spindly chairs, a bathroom sectioned off by a blue plastic curtain and a single bed with a pink and white rose-patterned duvet set. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this room for the whole of the flat, as the door for the second room was almost entirely obscured by the large rectangular mirror attached to it. It had a long, unappealing metal handle – the kind you might expect to find attached to the grey door of a dentist’s waiting room. Open the door a little bit, just a shade, and a shard of light would pierce the tea-stained carpet beneath your feet. As you may have imagined, the second room was far more interesting than the first.

The ceiling curved high, much higher than you would think possible in a flat such as this one, to form an airy dome. The two walls facing outwards – one towards the street and one to a small communal garden – were almost entirely dominated by four enormous square windows, two on each side. And everywhere, everywhere was covered in dresses. The wooden floors were ground down by heaving racks, on the walls hangers swung on nails with straps and sleeves bound round their necks, trembling cardboard boxes regurgitated masses of chiffon, velvet, sequins.

There were dresses of all kinds. There were pale muslin sun dresses to go with tanned shoulders and sandals and strolls through foreign vineyards. There were exquisite waterfalls of crepe in paradise blue and new-born pink. An antique ball gown strained its wooden hanger with the weight of layered petticoats and pearly beads. Aromatic silks formed exotic billowing sleeves in red, orange and brilliant green. Everywhere you looked, there was an extraordinary feat of human design disguised by the innocence of its loveliness.

Each one was a purchase of the librarian’s imagination. Something light for a holiday she had never taken. A celebration of beaded tassels for a party she had never been invited to. A slinky second skin for dinner with a man she had never met. Shelving books in the library, waiting for the bus, she never tired of fantasised situations which each demanded an individual costume. She became comfortably content experiencing the best parts of her life behind her eyes. But the dresses grew restless. They longed to be worn, to be stained, to be torn. To be lived in. Yet here they were, pinned to the walls like specimens.

One day, while the librarian was at work, the dresses began to shiver. They began to tremble and shake. The wooden hangers banged as they were thrust against the wall. Each dress flew off its hanger, off its rack, and in a single patchwork flock they charged at the enormous square windows. People in the streets screamed as a terrific crash was heard and shards of glass were flung onto the pavement below. And the dresses, the dresses poured out of their cavernous prison like air rushing from the neck of a balloon. Those with sleeves flapped them madly like terrific butterflies and those without slithered through the air like silken eels. They filled the sky with the subtle chord of a thousand windswept rustles as they soared over rooftops. Sequins and beads were torn from their threads and rained down on the city, rapping on windows and bouncing off drainpipes. The dresses remained in their unanimous shoal for mere minutes before zooming away in all directions.

A deep teal dress covered in silvery beads flew all the way down to suburban London before settling on a lamppost like a fallen leaf. It remains there today, and at night the electric light illuminates its delicate colour and is spun in all directions by the celestial beads.

A flowing ball gown drifted over a great forest, where it slowly began to descend like a dying balloon. By chance, it passed a slightly short-sighted aurelian. He had become stranded at the top of the tallest beech tree after he had climbed up – with his net and binoculars of course – in pursuit of an extraordinarily rare moth which had turned out to be an empty packet of pork scratchings. In a move that was most out of character, he spontaneously lunged for the dress’ weathered hem and was carried away from the top of the tree. Eventually, he was set down at a dormant countryside bus stop. His net and binoculars were left behind.

A white cotton tea dress with tiny forget-me-nots embroidered on the neckline became snagged on the tip of a policeman’s helmet. ‘What utter rubbish,’ he thought to himself, as he stuffed it into a bag for his niece. But when he got home that night, he felt strangely drawn to the dress. After many hours of conflicting contemplation, he snuck upstairs while his wife and children were watching television. The cotton felt heavenly on his calloused and hairy skin, like the caress of a cool English stream. His head cleared and, in the middle of the city, he breathed in pure country air with a dazed smile on his face. He has worn it under his uniform ever since. The dress is torn, wrinkled with dried sweat and greyed with the filth of a working body. But it is lived in. Since the day he put it on, the policeman has been promoted three times.

The incident was all over the news, of course. One of the dresses was even captured by a desperate journalist, who attempted to interview it on national television. But all over the country there followed reports of similar happenings. Unread books stretched their sun-blanched spines and smashed through small attic windows, flapping their musty yellowing pages. Glossy beetles broke out of their amber displays and wandered around the museum gift shop.

And what happened to the librarian? She returned home to find her treasures missing, the fruits of her imaginary life gone. She slowly closed the door and, for the first time, looked in the long, rectangular mirror attached to it. She looked, and she saw a young librarian – shall we say around thirty-two? – in ill-fitting grey trousers, a worn out jumper and brown shoes with holes in them. She looked. And, to her surprise, she smiled. 


Image credit: Mark1019 on Wikimedia Commons / CC By-SA 4.0

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