17 December 2020
The Dressing-Up Box
A Christmas story.
By Neil Tidmarsh
“I don’t want to go!” she shouted. “It’ll be boring! Boring!”
“But, Jenny dear, it’s only open once a year!” her mother explained. “A special Christmas treat!”
“Who wants to look at a big old house anyway? Boring! Old pictures and old furniture and old people! Boring, boring, boring!”
“It’s a fine example of a Jacobean mansion” her father said. “Early seventeenth century. One of the finest in the country. I’ve been looking forward to the tour all year.”
“And it’ll be full of suits of armour, won’t it, Dad?” Her brother was excited. “And swords and spears and guns and cannons and stuff!”
“Boring, boring, boring, boring!”
“There’ll be mince pies, Jenny” her mother said, “and Christmas cake, and – ”
“I don’t care!” She’d already had four mince pies that morning (she’d helped herself to three extra ones when her parents weren’t looking) and she was feeling a bit sick. “I’m not going!”
“And there’s sure to be other children there, other boys and girls for you to play with. And a shop, and a dressing-up box – ”
“A dressing-up box?” Jennie liked dressing-up boxes. Like the one at that big castle they’d visited that summer, when she’d tried on that pink dress which made her look like a princess from a fairy tale and that red and gold gown which made her look like the queen from that thing on the telly. She’d posted the photos on Instagram, and her friend Sally had been really jealous, she could tell. “A shop? Will you buy me something in the shop?”
“No” said her father.
“It all depends” said her mother, “on how well you behave.”
All the way there, in the car, she tried to get her parents to say what they’d buy her in the shop. She went on and on at them, trying to get them to promise something, but they refused. It was a half-hour drive, and by the end of it her mother was silent and white-faced and her father had threatened to turn round and drive back home at least three times and her brother was groaning and moaning with his head in his hands.
There was no shop. And as far as she could see there were no other children and no dressing-up box either. The other people there – the visitors and the guides – were all old, most of them even older than her parents.
Jennie was so disappointed and so angry that she wanted to scream and shout and stamp her feet, right there in the entrance hall while her father was buying the tickets, but she could barely get her breath. She couldn’t stop her lips from trembling. Her brother laughed at her. Their mother told him off in front of all the other visitors – that was something – but he didn’t seem to mind because he’d just caught sight of the weapons hanging on the wall in the first room. “Look at those swords! You could chop off a giant’s head with them! You could kill a dragon with those spears!” He ran off, out of the entrance hall. Their parents followed him. Jenny followed them slowly, trying not to cry.
The room was crowded. Jenny barely glanced at it or at the people around her. She had a mince-pie in her hand (they were giving them out with the tickets, and she couldn’t resist them, even though she was still feeling a bit sick), but that was old, too. At least, it looked and smelt and tasted as if it was old – stale and ancient and dusty like the house itself. After only one mouthful Jennie dropped it onto the carpet (an ornamental rug so worn and threadbare, she thought, that Aladdin would fall right through it if he tried to fly it to Baghdad).
Her mother and father were talking to a grey-haired, grey-bearded guide. She could hear their voices, words she didn’t understand. “Gothic… neo-classic… Inigo Jones…” Boring. Her brother was face to face with a suit of armour. Boring. She peered through a doorway into the next room. More people in there. Not so many. Any children? Let’s have a look… She went through the doorway. No. The other rooms, maybe?
Her mother and father had told her to stay close and not to wander off in case she got lost, but she didn’t care. If she did get lost it would be their own fault for ignoring her. The third room had even fewer people than the second room, and there were no people at all in the fourth room.
Jenny strode on, sulking and sullen, relishing her disobedience. She passed from empty room to empty room. She ignored the furniture and pictures and tapestries around her. The whole house seemed deserted and dimly lit and silent but for the sound of her footsteps – the soft pad-pad of her trainers – and the ticking of distant clocks. There must be some other children here somewhere, she thought. And a dressing-up box. There has to be a dressing-up box.
She went up some creaking wooden stairs and across the creaking wooden floorboards of a gloomy landing. She was beginning to feel a bit frightened. It was all so quiet and dismal. The blinds were drawn across every window and the weak electric lighting seemed to be getting dimmer and dimmer the further she went. Perhaps she should turn round. But she wasn’t sure she could find her way back to everyone else. What if she really was lost?
There was a long corridor ahead of her. The door to the first room on her left was open. There was a bright light coming out of it. She peered inside.
There was a girl in there. A young girl, about her own age. She was standing by a window, holding the blind back and looking out. It was barely four o’clock but it was already dark outside. Jenny could see the girl’s face in profile. She looked very sad. Then she turned and saw Jenny and she smiled a smile of pure joy and hope. “Hello!” she said, letting the blind fall back into place. She laughed. “I’m so glad to see you! I’m so bored on my own here!”
Jenny came into the room. “I like your dress” she said. It was a wonderful dress. It was the most wonderful dress she’d ever seen. It was all gold and silver, silk and lace, with a flared skirt and ribbons all over the place. It looked really old – hundreds and hundreds of years old – but brand-new at the same time. The bright light in the room danced all over it. The girl even had a pair of shoes – gold and silver sequined pumps – to go with it. Jenny didn’t want the girl to know how much she liked it. She didn’t want her to know how jealous she felt. “I knew there’d be a dressing-up box!” she exclaimed, even as she realised with disappointment that this girl had beaten her to it and had taken the best dress in there. There couldn’t possibly be another one like it.
“Dressing-up box?” the girl said.
“Yes, where they keep the costumes so the children can dress up and pretend they’re living in the olden times!”
“Oh, yes, of course” the girl said. “But this is the only dress.”
“What? So there are lots of stupid soldiers’ uniforms and pirate costumes and stupid helmets and shields and armour for the stupid boys to play with, but only one dress for the girls?”
“I like what you’re wearing” the girl said. She was looking at Jenny’s clothes in much the same way that Jenny was looking at hers. “What’s your name?”
“Jennifer.” Jenny was just wearing jeans and a sweater and her winter jacket, so she thought at first that the girl was only being ‘nice’. But then, she thought, they are my best jeans – the ones with the sparkly thread around the pockets – and my bright red Christmas sweater and my new silver padded jacket, so of course she likes them! “But I’m called Jenny.”
“I’m Elizabeth. But people call me Lizzie.”
Jenny laughed. “Thin Lizzie.” The girl really was very thin. And very pale. And shorter than Jenny, and Jenny wasn’t the tallest person in her class by a long way. The girl had long, thin, fair hair and pale blue eyes. I suppose she’s quite pretty in a faded sort of way, Jenny thought, but not as pretty as me with my warm brown eyes and my plump cheeks and my thick brown hair. “Thin Lizzie!” she jeered. “Thin Lizzie!” That was the name of a pop group on one of Grandad’s funny big round black things he called ‘records’. “Thin Lizzie! Thin Lizzie!” Jenny knew that she was teasing, and she knew that the girl knew it too, but she didn’t care. Just try calling me ‘Jennifat’ in return and then see how nasty I can be, she thought.
The girl’s smile disappeared. She looked down and put one thin pale hand up to her thin, fair hair. She looked upset and disappointed. She was biting her lip and there were tears in her eyes. Yes, Jenny thought, she is a ‘nice’ girl. Good. That means I should be able to get her to let me put that dress on. She’s had her turn, after all. It’s my turn now. Mum can take some photos and we can put them all on Instagram and call them “the fairy on top of the Christmas tree!” and Sally will be so jealous. And I’m probably a bit older than this girl. That should help. “I’m almost ten” she said. “How old are you?”
“Ten years? Oh, older.” She suddenly laughed. “I mean, a bit older.”
Jenny didn’t believe her. The girl was smaller than Jenny. But did that mean the dress might not fit her? Jenny started asking questions just to get away from that worrying thought. “Where do you live? I live in Oakwood, in Forest Road. And I go to school at Saint Justin’s.” I might be able to catch her out on her age if I know what year she’s in, she thought. “Where do you go to school?”
“I live here” the girl said. “And I don’t go to school.”
For a moment Jenny was impressed. “What, you mean you have a governess or a tutor or something, just like in the stories?”
“Yes. Well, I did, but not now. Not for a while…”
“But you live in this big old house! My Mum and Dad and my brother would be so jealous! They’ve been talking all day about how much they’d like to live in a house like this!” She looked round the room. It was no different from the others. “I don’t think I’d like it, though.”
“No” the girl whispered. “I don’t like it.” She shivered. “It’s horrible. Horrible.”
“I know what you mean. It’s so gloomy. And so quiet. How long have you been living here?”
“Oh, ages” she said quietly. “Ages and ages.” Then she smiled. “But now you’re here! A friend, at last! We can be friends, can’t we? We can have fun, play games. What sort of game do you want to play?”
She’s so lonely, Jenny thought, I can get her to do whatever I want. This is going to be easy. “Well – ” she began.
But the girl interrupted. “Why don’t we play dressing up?”
“Well, yes – !”
“Do you really like this dress?”
“Yes, I – ”
“Isn’t it lovely?” The girl came closer. “Look at it! It’s all silk and lace! Look at the light on it! All silver and gold! Look at the ribbons!” She laughed, and looked at Jenny in a strange grown-up sort of way. “Do you want to try it on?”
“Yes! Yes, I do!”
“And these shoes – do you want to try them on too?”
“But what am I going to wear?” The girl thought for a moment, biting her lip, her eyes sparkling. “I know! I can wear what you’re wearing! We can dress up in each other’s clothes! Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Jenny started laughing too. She pulled off her silver padded jacket. I didn’t think it would be this easy, she thought gleefully. She pulled off her red Christmas sweater and her trainers and her blue sparkly jeans. But the girl was having some trouble getting the dress off. “Here” the girl said. “Give me a hand, will you? I can’t get it off on my own! And the shoes – take them off for me, would you?” Jenny tugged the shoes off the girl’s little feet and then grabbed a handful of silk and lace and pulled the dress up over the girl’s head. Her hand brushed the girl’s thin bare shoulder and she felt a painful jolt in her fingers. It felt like an electric shock, but Jenny realised that it was just that the girl was cold. Very cold. Like ice. “Ow!” she said. “How come you’re so cold?”
The girl didn’t answer. She was too busy pulling on Jenny’s jeans and sweater. She was laughing and giggling in a way Jenny didn’t like. Jenny realised it was the way she herself giggled when she was playing a trick on someone. “Oooh!” the girl said. “Your clothes are so nice and warm. Lovely and warm!” She saw Jenny looking at her. “Put the dress on! Go on! Look at it! Isn’t it lovely! You want to put it on, don’t you?”
Jenny was holding the dress. She looked down at it. Yes, it was lovely. Yes, she did want to put it on. She slipped it on over her head and felt the gorgeous silk and lace tumble all around her. But it felt very cold, almost like standing under a cold shower. She opened her eyes and spread and smoothed the gold and silver stuff down. It was so bright, and yet so cold… Never mind, it would soon warm up now she had it on. It was just cold because the girl was cold and she’d been wearing it for… for how long?
“Ah, warm, warm at last!” the girl gasped. She pulled on Jenny’s padded jacket. She was still laughing. “Free, at last!” She zipped the jacket right up to her chin.
Jenny was shivering. She could feel herself getting colder and colder. The dress wasn’t warming up. Far from it. And her fingers – where they’d touched the girl’s shoulder – were getting colder too. The coldness was spreading through her hand and up her arm and across her shoulders. “No” she said. “I don’t like it. It’s too cold. I want my warm clothes back.”
The girl ignored her. “Your mother and father. Where are they?”
“I want my clothes back!” Jenny shouted. “Give me back my clothes!”
“Tell me about your mother and father first!”
“They’re back there” Jenny said. “They’ll be here soon.” Yes, and they’ll help me when they get here. They’ll sort this out. “My mum and dad, and my brother – ”
“Your brother? What’s his name?”
“Stephen – ”
“How old is he?”
“Eight. Now give me back my clothes – ”
But the girl was still ignoring her. She was looking at the door, as if waiting for someone to come in. There was something new about her, something which Jenny didn’t like. It was as if the girl wasn’t a girl anymore, but a grown-up. But she wasn’t a grown-up, of course, she was still a little girl. A little girl who was years and years older than Jenny. Decades, perhaps even centuries older.
Jenny started to feel frightened.
“I don’t like this game. I’m not playing anymore.” Jenny tried to take the dress off, but she couldn’t. It was sticking to her somehow, clinging to her skin, as if it was wet. The shoes wouldn’t come off, either. It wasn’t as if everything was too small – it was all a perfect fit. But how come the dress fits me so well when I’m bigger than her? She looked at the girl, standing there by the door. How come my clothes fit her so well when she’s smaller than me?
She heard footsteps and voices in the corridor. She recognised them immediately. Mum! Dad! Stephen! Then there they were, in the doorway. She ran towards them, but the girl was in front of her. Mum’s arms were open – and the girl ran straight into them. “There you are!” Mum said. “We were wondering where you’d got too!” But she wasn’t looking at Jenny. She was looking down at the girl in her arms.
“I’m so sorry!” the girl said. “I shouldn’t have wandered off like that! I’m really sorry! I hope you weren’t worried!”
“Mum!” Jenny shouted. “That’s not me! I’m here! Over here! That nasty girl is pretending to be me!”
But no one seemed to hear her. Or see her.
“Well…” Dad said to the girl. “As long as you’re all right…”
“Yes, Dad. And I’m sorry I was so horrible about coming here” the girl said. “All that fuss about the shop and the dressing-up box. It doesn’t matter. I don’t mind. And I don’t think I’d want anything from the shop, even if there was one.”
“Well!” Mum laughed. “It is nice to have you back, I must say!”
“Mum!” Jenny screamed. “Mum! Dad!” Why were they ignoring her? Couldn’t they hear her? Couldn’t they see her? She tried to grab hold of Dad’s coat but her fingers couldn’t get a grip on it. She tried to grab Mum’s arm but couldn’t. She tried to grab hold of the girl’s hair and pull her away from Mum but she couldn’t. The girl’s hair – it wasn’t long and thin and fair any more but shorter and thicker and dark brown. And Jenny could see that the girl was now taller than her. And when Mum finally let the girl go and the girl turned to Stephen, Jenny saw that her eyes weren’t blue any more but warm brown, and her face wasn’t thin and pale – her cheeks were plump. It was like looking in a mirror.
“I’ll give you a sword-fight when we get home, if you like” the girl said to Stephen. “Like you’re always asking me.”
“Oh yes, Jen!” said Stephen. “What shall we be? Pirates? Or knights? Or samurai?”
“Whatever you want” the girl said. “Come on, I’ll give you a race along the corridor outside!”
The girl and Stephen disappeared out of the door, laughing. Mum and Dad looked at each other in surprise. “Well” Mum said, smiling. “It seems we’re going to have a happy Christmas after all!” They both laughed cheerfully as they left the room.
“Mum!” Jenny shouted. “Dad! Stephen!” She tried to follow them, but suddenly she saw that the arms she was holding out to them didn’t look like her arms – they were thin and pale-skinned. The shock pulled her up short. She put her hands up to her hair. It didn’t feel like her hair. It wasn’t thick, and it was longer than it should have been. She peered down at a handful of it. It was thin and fair. She heard herself whimpering. She was shivering and her teeth were chattering. She was so cold. There were other people in the room behind her now, other visitors, but none of them seemed to hear or see her. What’s happened to me? A mirror, there’s a mirror in here… She turned to face it – a huge antique looking-glass in an ornate gilt frame hanging above a fireplace – but she couldn’t see herself in it. She went right up to it. But she still couldn’t see herself. She could see the reflection of the people behind her, and the pictures on the far wall. But of herself – there was nothing.
She could just hear her mum and dad’s voices – and the laughter of her brother and the girl – out in the corridor, but they were getting fainter and fainter as they moved further and further away. She was still staring into the mirror long after those sounds had faded to nothing and the house was silent and empty.