When I was nine years old, I went to the city with my dad.
The year was either 1996 or 1997, and we were living in the north island of New Zealand. The eighteen months we spent there are the golden years of my childhood. We lived in a beautiful house with a beautiful garden, Mum was still a Stay At Home and Dad worked a few minutes from the house so I saw him all the time, and my last remaining live-in brother, while very busy being a Teenager, was usually nice to me.
Before we go on with the rest of the story, because she’s doesn’t feature in it again, I’d like to express what a great mother I have. She was, and is, present, fun, supportive and lovely. I just have some feminist guilt at focusing so heavily on Dad here when she was and is so consistently there and awesome.
Okay, let’s continue.
New Zealand is particularly, for me, a golden time with my dad. In our home in Warrego (a mining community in the Northern Territory, populated entirely by mine workers, their families, and bull ants) I’d had to compete for his time with work, the pub, three older brothers, a bout with cancer and being a small, quiet girl. Which is not to say I got a small amount of attention. I was, until the age of thirteen, a Daddy’s Girl. And to his immense credit, he never described me as such. I was, in his words both at the time and forever after, ‘such a lovely kid.’ He read me bedtime stories (shared with Mum), putting up with the sheer amount of times I made him read Fox In Socks because of how funny his Welsh accent sounded stuffing up tongue twisters, he let me use him as furniture, and most importantly, he let me hang out with him when he was listening to his music.
For your cooler fathers who spent the sixties in the UK as proper adults, you’d think this music would be rock related. But not my dad. My dad, who lived in Britain, who could not name one Bowie song. My dad who had never heard of the Doors until I watched that almost entirely terrible Oliver Stone movie and turned my life into an insufferable Jim Morrison tribute piece. My dad listened to Welsh male choirs. I dubbed it dragon music, on account of the gunmetal dragon statue that lived on the stereo, which he thought was delightful, and we’d dance to it while the rest of the family watched TV in the lounge – me standing on his toes, naturally. I really was a sickeningly cute kid.
And then we moved to New Zealand. Dad spent less time at the pub and more time at home. We spent a lot of time together as a family, exploring the country, on hikes, at Saturday morning sport events. But one night was just me and Dad. I’m sure there were others, but this is the one that sticks. A Welsh choir was touring and performing in Auckland, a couple hours drive from where we lived, and he and I went together. I don’t remember if Mum didn’t want to go or if she was busy/away. I don’t remember if we drove there that night or if we stayed in a hotel. I remember being excited, I remember loving the concert, I remember them singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow and the Dulux song, and Dad being absolutely chuffed and conducting from his seat the whole time.
But this is not a story about my dad.
Twist ending! Sorry. This was me initially trying to write a short anecdote and then getting sidetracked by a place and a time and a person that I miss.
This is actually a story about an ugly dress and the girl wearing it.
While we lived in New Zealand, Dad’s two oldest sisters came to visit. They were – and are – delightfully, stereotypically Welsh. Small and pale and very chatty. They brought with them two delightfully stereotypically Welsh husbands, one who wouldn’t stop singing and one who wouldn’t stop inspecting the garden. Sadly, they also brought with them the dress.
There’s this thing people like to do to little girls, and it is to buy them pretty dresses. ‘Pretty’ in this context is a reflection of the buyers interest, without ever taking the personal interests or preferences of the little girl in question into account.
Also, by this time, I wasn’t exactly little. Nine is, as far as kids are concerned, practically a grown up.
There’s a really great picture of me in this dress. A small, pale girl with brown hair, engulfed in burgundy satin and white lace garnished with burgundy bows and frills, looking off camera to an unseen parent, utterly mystified.
The only time I wore this rustling monstrosity, other than to take said photo on the day of The Gifting, was to the Welsh choir in Auckland. It seemed appropriate, and Dad was a very big fan of (children) sincerely thanking anyone for a present, no matter how odd you find the choice of dried blood as a colour for a child’s dress, and sending the gift giver evidence that you have used and enjoyed their rather odd present.
It was when we were walking to the theatre that I saw her.
This woman, whose face I never saw, has stayed in my mind forever as the pinnacle of amazingness. She was walking in front of us with a man, and she was, as far as I was concerned, beautiful. She had long, long hair, perfectly straight and dark. She had knee-high boots, a short black skirt, a black jacket. She was pale, like me, and she walked like someone who had somewhere to be.
I don’t know where she went. I don’t remember her turning off, or us overtaking her. I just remember her there, in front of me, looking incredible while I wore an artful reworking of one of the Queen’s curtains. And then I remember being at the concert.
I don’t spend much time thinking about her. She just pops into my mind every now and then, and has ever since. Most recently, she came to my mind last week. My comfortable, flat boots for work died an unfixable death, and the only shoes I had at my boyfriends were my new ankle boots. I pulled them on over black knee high socks, and threw my black coat over my uniform. Thanks to not adding enough time to my usual route to allow for tall shoes, I was running late.
I caught a look at my reflection of a shop window as I power-walked through the centre. I always forget how long my hair is now, dead straight after a shower. My open jacket showed my short black skirt, a staple whether I’m at work or not, and my boots and socks looked awfully familiar in the blurred glass.
And there she was. The woman I’d seen in Auckland on a special night with my Dad in the reflection of a shop window over twenty years later.
Maybe this isn’t the story of an ugly dress either, or the girl wearing it. Maybe it’s the story of two strangers, two women, two decades apart.