Chains of the Past

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The woman wants to buy the dress. Well, I won’t let her. I can’t.

The wedding dress has enslaved me. It haunts me wherever I go, white and sad and forgotten. A ghost. It needs to stay here so I can unravel its secrets.

This is my fifth visit to the charity shop in as many days.

Cheryl’s Op Shop boasts second-hand toys, vintage clothes and used furniture that the sales people pass off as antiques. It smells of musty old things and disinfectant. The place is one high-ceilinged room that used to be a church. Sunlight streams in through the stained-glass windows, sending colour dancing across the faded remnants of people’s lives. 

At the front of the store is a wedding dress, the kind of dress I’ve dreamed of wearing since I was a little girl. The dress is simple and elegant, bereft of laces and frills, and cut into an A-line shape that will complement my body. It’s a startling white.

If only the woman wasn’t sniffing around the dress like a dog for scraps. She’s around my age, late twenties, with long dark hair, straight out of a shampoo ad. She has a glow about her. I loiter nearby, a shadow.

“How much is the dress?” she asks me.

“Three hundred bucks.”

She baulks at the price and I stifle my smile. Seems she won’t be buying it after all.

“My God, that’s so cheap. A dress like that would cost a few thousand in a bridal boutique.”

My smile withers.

“Do you know what condition it’s in?” she asks.

“I don’t know; I don’t work here.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I just saw you there and thought…” She laughs nervously.

She calls the sales assistant. He looks quite young, with a pimple sitting proud on his forehead.

The woman repeats her question and the guy answers vaguely. “I wasn’t on shift when this was brought in but I’m told the bride never wore the dress. Or if she did, she took good care of it.”

The woman picks up the dress and goes to the change room. Ten minutes later, she emerges and heads for the counter. She fishes around in her bag for her wallet. Panic, like shaken champagne, fizzes through me.

“So you’re getting married soon?” I blurt out.

“Yeah,” she says. “I came here to get some furniture, the cheap stuff. But then I saw this and it’s perfect.”

I nod though I’m not really listening. “I bet you’ve been imagining your special day since you were a little girl.”

“Yeah.” She laughs nervously again, probably finding my questions a tad strange.

“Are you sure you want to buy your wedding dress from a charity shop?”

“Well, I ordered a dress and laid out a deposit and everything. But the place went bust. My wedding’s only two weeks away and this is all I can afford, so it’s my best bet.”

She looks at me strangely.

“Did you want to buy it?” she asks.

“No, not at all. I’m a writer, actually.” Now it’s my turn to laugh. “I’m interested in things like this, imagining the reasons why someone would leave a wedding dress in a charity shop.”

“I’ve been wondering the same thing,” she admits. Her shoulders relax, now that she knows why I’ve been so curious.

“What do you think happened?” I need to buy myself time, keep her talking.

She holds out the dress. Lines of concentration are etched into her forehead.

“Maybe the bride was cheating so she called off the wedding? Or Mr Right turned out to be Mr Wrong.” She peers closer. “They could have fallen out of love. It happens.”

“Or maybe there’s something wrong with the dress?”

She laughs, more relaxed now. “C’mon, you’re a writer. What do you really think? You must have some ideas.”

I clench my teeth, feeling my jaw click.

“Perhaps the bride was stood up at her own wedding,” I say. “It was the most humiliating moment of her life. And yet she goes over it again and again, trying to figure out why. Getting rid of the dress might have been some kind of closure.”

“Sounds like you have a good premise for a story there.”

She places the dress on the counter. As the shop assistant goes to scan it, I snatch the garment from her.

“You can’t have it yet!” I shout. “I need more time!”

The woman looks frazzled and snaps: “Give me the dress back.”

I don’t budge so she grabs the dress and pulls. We’re locked in a game of tug of war, which I can’t afford to lose.

“Ladies, please!” the shop assistant shouts.

We’re pulling so hard that the dress will surely tear. I let go and step back, panting.

At that moment another sales assistant comes in. CHERYL is on her name tag — the shop’s namesake and owner. The man looks relieved.

Cheryl sees me and her eyes light up with recognition. “Having second thoughts about the dress, are we?”

The woman looks from me, to the dress she’s holding. “This is your dress?”

Cobwebs of memory trap me in their sticky threads. It’s coming back to me now. Guests, crammed into church pews, subtly checking their watches. My feet, aching in pristine bridal shoes. My mother crying. Tears form at the edges of my vision.

“I’m sorry,” the woman says. “Here, take it. It’s yours.”

She holds the dress out to me. My fingertips brush the fabric which is cold to touch. I’ll buy it, so that no-one else can.

With this dress, I can almost imagine the answers to questions that echo endlessly in my head. Why did he leave me? What did I do to deserve the humiliation, the heartbreak?

Where did the love go?

A few days from now I know the dress will end up in another store, because I put it there. And I’ll buy it again. This is not my first charity shop.

But there’ll never be an answer that can fix this, that can fix me. I pull my hand back.

“You know what?” I tell the woman. “Keep it. It’s yours.”

I walk away. At first it’s hard to turn my back on the dress, but the further I go, the lighter I feel. The chains of my past are breaking.

I’ll probably change my mind tomorrow, wanting to see the dress again to figure out why he would turn what should have been the best day of my life into the worst.

But now the dress is out of my reach. Maybe the memories will be too, eventually. There’s a chance I’ll finally be free.

Alex Turner-Cohen is a first-year Journalism student. She is an aspiring journalist and novelist, who loves chocolate and has two pugs called Coco and Cino.