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The Red Dress

One woman, in particular, stood out from the crowd.

A middle-aged woman, Anna, and her husband enjoy a day celebrating the 1940's. As they walk through the village, enjoying the recreated sights and sounds, Anna spies a woman dressed immaculately for the period in a red dress...

Back in the spring, my husband and I went to visit a 1940s Weekend. There were many people there dressed in the fashions and uniforms of those days. There were vehicles and stalls and it really was a wonderful weekend. An escape from the humdrum repetitiveness of my daily life.

As I walked, arm in arm with my husband, Philip, I took in the sights, sounds and even tastes of the Forties. The corned beef hash was delicious!

The majority of the chosen uniforms were, sadly, American but there were also some British Army, Royal Air Force (mainly officers, surprise, surprise) and Royal Navy uniforms along with a splash of Germans and French resistance fighters.

What caught my interest, of course, were the ladies fashions. There were many varieties. Land Army girls, Nurses, Housewives, workers, posh ladies, they were all represented.

The posh ladies were my favourites. They were so elegant in their knee-length dresses, smart coats and hats or 40’s style hair. Some with fur stoles and some with elegant gloves but all had one thing in common. Seamed stockings and heeled shoes.

One woman, in particular, stood out from the crowd. She was in her late thirties/early forties with jet black hair styled up in that elegant wartime fashion. She was very pretty and had a beautiful figure with a slim waist and hips. Her dress was red and fitted her figure beautifully, accentuating her full, but not large, breasts. It was buttoned down the front from her collar to just below her knees and she wore seamed stockings with black patent strapped shoes and heels of about three inches. On her head, she wore a small black hat with lace netting and around her neck a black fur stole. Her face was made up with plenty of foundation powder which was a pale colour, contrasting with her bright crimson lipstick and black Kohl.

As she walked she appeared aloof but with a slight smile playing on her lips and at the edges of her eyes the tiny creases gave that hint of early maturity. In short, she was stunning!

As the day wore on I saw her many times, walking arm in arm with her husband in his immaculate brown suit and trilby but she never saw me… or so I thought.

That night, I went to bed and lay for a while thinking about the day we'd had and how much I enjoyed it. I have been to these things before but somehow, this time, it was better.

I thought about the unknown woman in the red dress and gradually drifted off into a peaceful and contented sleep.

I don’t know how long I had been asleep but I was awoken suddenly by a tremendous crash. As I came to I realised that my house had collapsed! I was lying in the wreckage, covered in blood and I couldn’t move. I didn’t understand, what happened, where was Philip?

It was pitch black but I could hear people shouting and children crying. I tried to move but I couldn’t and each time my chest hurt. It felt as though I was being crushed.

I called out but I could hardly breathe, every breath was an effort.

Suddenly, a light shone on my face.

“Over ‘ere. She’s alive.”

It was a man I didn’t know wearing dark blue overalls and what looked like a white metal hat.

“Come on, Sid, help me get this beam off ‘er. It’s all right Missus. We’ve got yer.”

As they lifted I took a sharp intake of breath. Thank God I could breathe again.

The two men lifted me out of the pile of debris that used to be my home. The one called Sid said,

“Yer safe now love. We’ll take yer to the medics. They’ll check yer over don’t you worry.”

“What happened, where is my husband?” I screamed at them.

“A doodlebug love. Yer know, one o’ them flyin’ bomb things. Bleedin’ Jerries. Fell right in front of yer ‘ouse it did. You’re lucky to be alive, I’ll tell yer!”

I was shaking now, shock was setting in.

“Where’s my husband?” I said again.

“Don’t you remember, Anna? He’s away in the Air Force. He’s all right.” I turned my head. It was the lady in the red dress. “You’ve had a shock sweetheart. Let’s get you some tea.”

I didn’t get it. What was happening to me?

I looked around. The quiet suburban street where I lived was gone. In its place were piles of bricks and broken timbers. A little along the road a house was burning fiercely. I could see two fire engines and an ambulance. They were like they were from a museum. Where was the fire brigade?

I couldn’t take it all in and my legs gave way.

“All right love, we’ve got yer.” The two men helped me to the ambulance and sat me inside.

“Anna, drink this tea. It will help you relax.” Again, it was the lady with the red dress. I took the green cup and saucer with the little ridges.

“Thank you,” I said and took a sip. I coughed violently.

“Sorry,” she said, “A little too much brandy?”

“No, it’s fine,” I told her, “Thank You. You are very kind.”

“Don’t you know me, Anna?” There was a hint of concern in her voice.

“I… I’m sorry, I can’t… can’t think straight.”

“Laura, from the W.I. I live up the road.”

“Yes, I’m sorry. My mind is a bit fuddled at the moment.” I looked around me. Everywhere was destroyed and burning. My head was pounding and in my confused state, I thought I could hear other explosions in the distance.

I vaguely heard Laura’s voice asking if I was all right and a man's voice saying I was but needed someone to keep an eye on me for a few hours. She said She would take me to her house.

“Can you walk, Anna?” She said to me.

“Yes, I think so.” I tried to stand. I was a little wobbly but otherwise managing alright.

“Come on,” she said. “You can lean on me. I’ll take you home.”

“It’s gone,” I looked at her. “My home is gone.”

“I know.” Brushing the hair from my eyes and some of the dirt from my face she continued, smiling gently and with care in her eyes. “You can stay with me for now until we sort this mess out.”

Slowly and carefully she guided me through the rubble, supporting me as I leaned on her until we reached her front door.

Inside it was warm and welcoming. Once through the thick blackout curtain behind the door, she turned on the light and for the first time, I caught sight of myself in the hall mirror. I could not believe what I saw. I was wearing a long, once white, nightdress which was covered in dust and dirt. My hair was hanging down and matted with the same debris that was on my nightie. I wore no shoes or slippers and my legs and feet were black and bloodied. My face looked bad. I had little cuts and bruises all over me and dark red dried blood was caked down the left side of my head.

I just stood and stared open-mouthed at my reflection and then it hit me. The tears welled in my eyes and rolled unstoppably down my cheeks leaving wet rivulets in the grime.

“Oh, Love,” Laura took me in her arms and held me while I sobbed uncontrollably until I finally recovered my composure.

“Come on, Sweetheart,” she said. “Let's get you cleaned up. I will run you a nice hot bath and see if we can help you settle.”

Slowly, arm in arm, we climbed the stairs. Step by very painful step she carefully guided me until we reached her spare bedroom and she sat me on the bed.

“You wait there while I draw some hot water for the bath,” she told me. “Lay back and rest if you want to. Don’t worry about the covers getting dirty,” she added, seeing my hesitance. “They will wash.” And with that, she disappeared into the bathroom.

I just sat and listened to her moving around and heard the hot water splashing into the bathtub the steam escaping through the door as it filled.

Soon, Laura returned. She had taken off her coat and hat and I noticed then that her dress had little capped sleeves, leaving her arms bare.

“All right?” she asked.

“I think so,” I replied. “Laura. I don’t know how to thank you. You are so kind.”

“Hush now, Anna. You would do the same for me. We all have to pull together in these troubled times.”

Helping me to my feet, Laura guided me to the bathroom. She had laid out a clean nightie and bathrobe. On the floor were a pair of slippers.

“Now then, Arms up!” I slowly and carefully lifted my arms and Laura lifted the hem of my nightie gently up and over my head then dropped it on the floor near the door.

“I don’t think you will be wearing that again,” she said. I looked over at what appeared to be a pile of bloodied, dirty rags.

“No, I suppose not,” was all I could manage.

I tried to bend to remove my big, satin pants.

“Oww...” I wailed.

“Here, let me”. Stepping nearer, Laura took the waistband and very carefully pulled them down over my hips and legs until I could step out of them.

“Oww... Ouch. Laura, It hurts so much.”

“I am not surprised, Anna, You had a house load of bricks on you not half an hour ago. The medic said you were very lucky to be alive. You are covered in cuts and bruises from head to toe! Now, do you think you can get into the bath?”

“I think so.” I lifted my leg over the side and put my foot into the hot, welcoming, water then, using Laura as a crutch I lifted my other leg over and very carefully sat down, letting the water cover me.

I winced in pain as I lay back.

Laura looked alarmed,

“Too hot?”

“No, It’s lovely. It feels so good. Thank you.”

“Good,” she replied, picking up a cloth. “Now let's get you cleaned up.”

I lay back as she wet the cloth in the water and ever so gently washed all the blood and grime out of my hair. Her touch was so soft and I felt like a child being lovingly bathed by her mother.

I closed my eyes and let the pain wash away from me, the hot, wet cloth taking away all my senses, making me feel relaxed and safe once again.

Then I felt the hot, cleansing water run over my face, and the cloth delicately removing any trace of dirt, blood and, for a few moments, the memory of what had happened.

I opened my eyes. Laura was now kneeling beside me. She saw me look at her and caressed my face with the back of her hand.

“It’s all right, Anna, You are safe now.”

Taking her hand I trapped it against my cheek and I smiled.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

Waiting for me to release her, Laura just looked at me and smiled. The little creases at the edge of her dark brown eyes becoming a little more prominent. I also noticed the tiny ‘c’ shapes at either end of her mouth. She was beautiful.

I let go of her hand and she wet the cloth again. Lathering some lavender-scented soap into it she began to wash my bruised and battered body with the touch of the daintiest of fairies. I lay back as she lifted first one arm and then the other. She cleaned around my neck and the upper part of my chest and each time I winced, she stopped and waited. No hurrying, just tender care.

Moving down to my feet, Laura lifted my leg out of the water. Without its aqueous support, it suddenly became very painful and I gasped and groaned a little.

“I am sorry”, she said sadly, “but I cannot do it any other way”.

Supporting my heel she washed my foot and worked her way, as tenderly as she could, along my shin and around my calf, behind and over my knee until she reached my upper leg.

The heat of the water, the scent of lavender and the gentle caresses of the cloth were intoxicating and as she repeated the process with my other leg all my pains and worries were being washed away.

I closed my eyes and let myself drown in the wonderful sensations that were flowing over me.


 

Withdrawing her hand from the water she sat back on her haunches and looked at me. No words were needed. All the conversation we needed was in our eyes.

I closed mine again and drifted off into a very contented half-sleep.

“Anna, no, you mustn’t sleep. Not in the bath.” Laura was leaning over me, gently caressing my face. “Come on, let's get you out and dried off and into some warm, fresh nightclothes.”

“Laura, I feel strange, woozy. Like nothing is real…”

“The Doctor said this might happen. You have a concussion. That is why he didn’t want you to be alone.”

I tried to stand but I felt so weak. With Laura’s help, I turned and knelt while the water ran away and, leaning heavily on her, managed, with much pain, to get out and step onto the bathroom floor.

Once out I stood, swaying slightly as if I was drunk but I couldn’t stand any longer and I started to fall forwards.

“Anna!” She caught me and gently lowered me onto the chair she had brought in for me.

Using a big soft fluffy towel, Laura dried me as gently and carefully as any mother would a newborn baby. Every time I flinched she would stop for a moment and say sorry. She gave me a pair of pale blue satin knickers to wear and a long pink cotton nightdress with a little silk ribbon tied with a tiny bow at the neck and finally the slippers.

Although I still hurt tremendously I at least felt human again.

She led me, well, almost carried me back to the bedroom and sat me on the edge of the big double bed. She had already turned down the blankets so she removed my slippers and carefully lifted my legs onto the soft mattress, then pulled the blankets back over me. They felt heavy against my battered body but they made me feel secure and safe.

“If you need me I will be in the spare room just across the landing. I will leave the doors open so I can hear if you call”.

“Laura, I don’t want to be alone, will you stay, please?”

“Well, I... I suppose I could. Yes, alright I’ll stay”.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

She went across to the other room to switch off the light and came straight back.

I watched her as she undressed, undoing the buttons of her red dress and slipping it off her shoulders, She dropped it on the floor.

“That will need to be washed,” she remarked casually. She pulled the thin straps from her shoulders and lowering it carefully, stepped out of the beige, satin slip. I looked for a moment, as she folded it up, at her standing there in her big bra and satin suspenders which were holding up the seamed stockings, she had taken her shoes off long ago, and full silk knickers.

“Laura”, I said quietly. When she answered I simply said, “You are beautiful”.

She smiled down at me and replied:

“So are you, Anna, so are you”.

After she had removed the final garments, she pulled on a pair of cotton knickers and a white nightdress of a similar style to the one she had given me and as she climbed into bed beside me she said,

“Remember, Anna, concussion can be very serious. If you feel sick or strange in any way at all you must wake me. Anna… promise!”

“I promise,” I replied but already I was beginning to drift away. The darkness overtaking me and I could feel her hand gently stroking my hair.

*

Outside, I could hear an ambulance, it’s bell ringing insistently.

“Anna! Anna! Wake up! Come on!”

I slowly opened my eyes.

“Come on, Anna, you’ll be late!”

“Philip! What are you doing here? Where‘s Laura?”

“Who's Laura?” He reached over and switched off the alarm.

A dream? Was that all it was, a stupid dream?

I cancelled the alarm and lay still for a moment. I felt a little strange. The dream had seemed so real and it took a moment to readjust.

I opened my eyes and looked around at the familiar surroundings of my room, the digital alarm clock, the flat TV on its wall bracket and the halogen light fittings on the ceiling.

Philip nudged me again.

"Come on, lazy bones," he said. "You don't want to be rushing around."

I sat up and swung my legs out of the bed but sat for a moment, thinking.

"Are you alright, sweetheart?" he asked.

"Uh, what?" I turned to him, "Oh, erm, yes. Sorry, just thinking. I had a weird dream."

"About Laura? who is she?”

I didn't answer right away, I still wasn't fully with it.

"That's the odd thing, I don't know," I said eventually and stood up to put on my robe and slippers. "I'd better get on I suppose."

Once I had showered, dressed and had coffee, the dream was all but forgotten and I went to the office feeling no different than any other Monday morning.

As the day wore on I began to develop a headache. It happened now and then. I had left my glasses at home and the strain of trying to read a computer screen without them was what often caused it.

By five o’clock I was ready to go home. It had been a busy day and the strain of working without my eyewear had made it a particularly tiring one. Even the drive home was difficult, the traffic was heavy and by the time I got home I was stressed and worn out.

I found Philip in the kitchen making the evening meal. He was a good cook and sometimes it was nice to just be able to get home and relax for a while.

"You're late tonight, Darling. Everything all right?"

He passed me a coffee which he had already brewed in anticipation of my return.

“Yes thanks,” I replied wearily. “Just a bit tired. It's been a long day and the traffic was awful tonight.”

“Yes, I heard on the radio. An accident on the ring road they said,” Philip continued but I wasn't really listening.

“Do you mind if I go and sit in the front room for a time, while you finish off here?” I asked. I just needed five minutes quiet.

“No, you go ahead. I'll call you when it's ready.”

I kissed him and went through to the lounge where I placed my cup on the side table and sank down into the big soft leather armchair, feeling it mould itself around me as I put my feet up and let the day fade away.

It was only a few minutes later when I heard him call through, "Dinner's ready!" and I stood and went into the kitchen to sit with him at the table.

He had worked so hard to make a nice dinner for us, a really tasty corned beef hash.

I looked at it then at him and smiled. He smiled back, saying,

"We enjoyed it so much at the weekend I thought we could have a proper one. I made the dumplings from scratch and all the vegetables are fresh from the market. Nothing frozen or tinned, except the corned beef, of course, and I went and got fresh, crusty bread from the supermarket bakery to finish it off."

"Oh, sweetheart, It's delicious."

It really was and I didn't have the heart to tell him I really wasn't hungry. My head was pounding now, like a dozen hammers all trying to hammer their way out through my skull.

I finished my meal and put my fingers to my temple, pressing hard to try and get the throbbing to stop but it only gave a brief respite because, as soon as I stopped, the pain just continued unabated and It was beginning to make me feel sick.

"Are you sure you are all right?" Philip looked concerned.

"Yes," I replied, "Just a bit of a headache. I should really keep some spare glasses at work."

"You go and sit down and relax, I'll finish off here." Philip was always so caring.

"I can't leave you to do all the washing up," I protested, although I was secretly pleased not to have to.

"It's all done anyway," he continued. "And what isn't can just go in the dishwasher, so go on, go and rest."

I didn't need to be told twice. I went upstairs and changed into my pyjamas and robe then went down and sat in my armchair. Philip had already finished in the kitchen and had settled himself in front of the TV.


 

I stayed there for a couple of hours. The television seemed so bright and the sound echoed inside my head. All the time the hammers were pounding away until I could stand it no more.

"Do you mind if I go up now, sweetheart?" A question that had only one answer. "My headache is just not going. I'll get some sleep and it should be gone in the morning."

"Yes, of course," came the reply, "I'll try not to disturb you when I come up."

Once in bed, I set the alarm for the morning and closed my eyes. Thankfully, once I relaxed, the headache began to ease and I drifted off into a deep sleep.

*

I must have slept extremely well as it seemed like no time at all before the alarm was ringing. My headache, though, hadn't gone at all and the incessant sound of the bell was unbelievably annoying. I threw my arm out to stop it but I was stopped by Philip holding my hand and a woman's voice was saying,

"Anna, please, wake up!"

I opened my eyes but the light hurt them and my head seemed tight and still hurt.

"Laura? What...?" I looked around. "What happened? Where am I?"

"Oh, Anna, thank goodness, I thought I had lost you."

Laura was sitting beside me, holding my hand, her tear-stained face looking so relieved.

"What do you mean, lost me?"

She looked at me with her moist, beautiful eyes and the tears began to roll down her cheeks.

"You had a fit, I didn't know what to do and when you stopped I couldn't wake you. There were still some ambulances at the bomb site and I got one of them to bring you to the hospital."

As she spoke the last few words her mouth began to quiver and she broke down completely, her body racked with sobs.

"Laura, I am fine now, everything will be fine," I tried to reassure her and squeezed her hand.

"No, Anna, You are not fine," she calmed down a little. "The ambulance man said you fitted because you are still bleeding inside your head. They had to get you to the hospital before the pressure got too much. They operated urgently but couldn't find where the bleeding was coming from!"

"You mean I could die?" Strangely, I felt quite calm. All of a sudden the prospect of my imminent demise didn't seem to worry me.

Laura didn't answer but I could tell from the look on her face and the increased flow of the tears from her eyes that this was indeed the case.

I closed my eyes for a moment, understanding now why my head ached so much and could feel the bandages wound tightly around my head.

I looked at her sad face and saw that despite the tears and the fear, she was still so beautiful.

"I am not afraid to die, Laura," I squeezed her hand. "I didn't tell anyone but I had a telegram a few days ago. Philip, my husband, was shot down and killed during a raid over Germany so, you see, if I am to die I will be with him again."

Laura smiled.

"You are so brave, Anna. I knew when I first saw you at the Women's Institute that you were special. I have loved you so much from afar, for so long now."

"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked but I already knew the answer.

"How could I? I didn't know if you would be disgusted, or offended and would perhaps never talk to me again!"

I smiled at her.

"Well, I am glad we are together now." I closed my eyes for a moment then opened them and looked into her eyes.

As I relaxed, Laura lay her head gently on my chest, holding me and I stroked her hair like a cat and entwined it around my fingers. I tried to open my eyes to look at her but I couldn't and the sounds of the hospital from outside the curtains were gradually fading away.

My aches and pains were all gone now and I felt a peace enveloping me, the like of which I had never known and then, through the darkness, a bright light began to shine, slowly becoming brighter.

“Anna? You are better now.” A man's voice, soft and gentle. Reassuring and yet familiar.

I opened my eyes and the bright lights hurt as they passed by above me. A man was beside me dressed in white, smiling and slightly blurred.

“You are safe now,” he said.

Someone was holding my hand as though guiding me as I seemed to float along this brightly lit tunnel.

I looked to my side and as my eyes focussed I saw it was my husband.

“Philip?” I whispered. I couldn't speak properly as there was something in my throat. I coughed but it wouldn't budge.

“Don't worry, my Darling. It's just a tube to help you breathe under the anaesthetic. They will remove it when we get you back to the ward.”

“Ward?” I coughed again, “Where am I?”

Philip's eyes looked moist and bloodshot.

“You are in Hospital, Sweetheart.” He squeezed my hand. “Don't worry now, you are fine.”

I didn't understand but I was exhausted and the tube felt like a drainpipe in my throat.

Before long we were in a private room off the main ward and the white-uniformed nurse very gently removed the tube from my throat.

Philip helped me to drink some water, my mouth and lips were so dry.

I looked at him and asked him why I was there.

He took my hand and held it tightly, looking at me intently before answering very carefully.

“Well...” He paused, as if uncertain of what to say. “After you went to bed last night, I heard a commotion from our room. I ran up to find you having a full-blown fit. You were thrashing about like a wild thing and I didn't know what to do. I called an ambulance and they arrived in minutes. By that time you had stopped fitting but you also stopped breathing.”

He waited and swallowed. I could see his eyes filling up as he resumed.

“They worked so hard to revive you and I thought I had lost you but they brought you back.”

The emotion was too much and he burst into tears.

“I love you so much, I couldn't bear to lose you!” He sat beside me on the chair and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his eyes and blow his nose.

I waited patiently until he had recovered his composure.

“They gave you a scan and found an aneurysm in your head which was causing pressure to build up around your brain. That is why you had such a headache.”

All was now clear. My dreams hadn't been dreams at all but my brain trying to tell me something was wrong. I held Philip's hand tightly.

“Where am I now? This doesn't look like our local hospital.”

“No,” he replied. “Because of the fit, they brought you straight to the neurological hospital. You have been in surgery for some hours and I have been reading about this wing. It's called the 'Laura Pendleton wing'. Apparently, it was paid for by the legacy of an old woman, Laura Pendleton, who passed away about twenty years ago. It seems her husband was missing, believed killed, in North Africa during the Second World War, an army officer if my memory serves. Anyway, it seems she rescued a neighbour from her house when it was hit by a V1 flying bomb. The neighbour only survived a few hours and later died in hospital from unseen head injuries, I suppose something like you had. She never remarried and as she had no children she left all her money to the hospital with a proviso that it was to be used to treat head injuries and such like. I suppose, in a roundabout way, she saved your life.” He paused and frowned. “I just realised something, how strange.”

“What is?” I asked.

“The neighbour,” he answered. “She was called Anna too!”

 

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