Sybil’s Dress – Shauna Gilligan

“Real freedom is discipline,” she said as she slipped another pin into the linen.

I stared at my hands as they pleated another line in the evening dress. She was always saying things like that to us. I don’t mean to imply that she talked much, or that she was the chatty sort – she was, after all, a serious woman – but there was a gaiety about her when she paid us a visit. Somehow she felt that these visits must always involve imparting nuggets of knowledge that she had gleaned on her travels.

It was said in the newspapers and whispered amongst us that she was the best travelled and most international Irishwoman in the world. There was a strong hope that the First Lady Jackie Kennedy would wear one of the dresses our hands had pleated – and perhaps even pose for a portrait!

“I have to feel what’s being made,” she said later that same day.

I watched her fingers caress the material she said was inspired by the ground beneath our feet – the colour of peat – and saw the beginnings of a frown on her forehead.

“Is it that you don’t trust us?” My stomach plummeted at my speaking out.

In the silence a tremor crossed her face; her body seemed to deflate a little. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, suddenly desperately wishing she would raise her voice, shout at us, and exclaim that we were ungrateful country girls. Tell us that they – the naysayers – were right all along, that there was no reason to employ local girls as seamstresses, for they always betray you. I willed her to say it aloud. That our combined jealousy – for that was all we girls had in common – would be the ruin of her. The woman modelling the sample dress wobbled in shoes that were a size too big, hardly daring to breathe. The air itself seemed to pause.

“It is that I don’t trust myself,” she said calmly, “without having touched the fabric.”

She didn’t look at the model, or the dress, or even the material. She looked beyond us, beyond everything. And then she smiled. Her full lips, pink with lipstick, stretched over her straight white teeth and I thought then that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I felt an urge to embrace her.

“But of course you must know that we trust you,” I said, looking around. Though my lips were bare and cracked and my teeth crooked, I too smiled. “All of us girls trust you…” – I paused, my throat going dry – “and even love you.”

A sound of satisfaction escaped her lips. I watched her let the fabric slide from her hand and with a swing of her green skirt walk towards the bare wall at the back of the room. She slipped gracefully through the door that led into the yard where the rain was falling heavily.


SHAUNA GILLIGAN is a novelist and short story writer from Dublin. Shauna is interested in exploring the crossover of art and literature, the depiction of historical events in fiction, and creative processes. The Sunday Independent declared her novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere to be “thoroughly enjoyable and refreshingly challenging.”

Image via Pixabay

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