A Touch of Class

The invitation took Lucy by surprise. It was the last thing she expected. After reading it, she ‘phoned her best friend Patsy.
“Pats, have you also received an invite to Tara Blake’s pre-graduation ladies’ luncheon?”
“Didn’t know she was having one. No, she can’t stand me; I’m much too common. Trust our Tara to do things on a grand scale. No plonk and peanuts in the local pub for Tara; she has to have a “ladies’ luncheon” no less. I take it you’re invited?”
“Yes, but I’m not going,” Lucy said quickly.
“Don’t be daft, woman, of course you’re going! Haven’t we always hankered to know what kind of mansion lurks behind those wrought iron gates? Now’s your chance to see how the upper-crust live. I’ve always wondered whether she’s just a big mouth or if there’s some substance to Tara’s grandiose tales of the doings of the rich.”
“Well I can tell you what they’ll be doing after lunch on the 14th. According to the invitation, either playing tennis or swimming, neither of which grab me. I’m hopeless at tennis and will feel an utter klutz cavorting around in my one-piece while they sport their stuff in itzy-bitzy bikinis.”
“What stuff? It’s because they haven’t any that they can wear them, so be grateful for what you’ve got.”
“Oh Lord, Pats, that raises another problem. We’ll probably have to change together. Can you imagine the jokes that’ll fly round when they see my underwear? Why is it that flat-chested girls can pick and choose from a range of lacy nothings, but anyone taking more than a C-cup has to settle for khaki-coloured tents? I’m definitely not going!”
“Yes you are. We’ll go to ‘Victoria’s Secret’ and buy the sexiest underwear you’ve ever seen.”

Which they did, leaving Lucy penniless for the rest of the month.
“That’s my whole allowance blown,” she moaned, secretly delighting in the sight of the glamorous undergarments.
Which purchases in the end proved unnecessary.

On the day, Lucy took surreptitious notice of the opulent décor of what was indeed a grand mansion, knowing her friend would want a detailed account. Tara’s parents were either out or discreetly keeping out of the way as there was no sign of them. After a gourmet meal that would have had Patsy smacking her lips, when given the option of tennis or swimming, only three girls other than herself chose the latter.
“You three can change in the bathrooms,” Tara said, waving a hand vaguely towards the stairs, “and you, Lucy, can use the downstairs cloak. On the right over there.”

The first room on the right happened to be the study, but as it was vacant and had a key in the door, Lucy decided it would do just as well. She locked herself in and changed into her one-piece in solitary splendour, grumbling quietly to herself at her foolishness in trying to match the standards of these wealthy girls. “Serves me right,” she muttered. “No-one will even see the fripperies I’ve spent a fortune on.” She tucked her extravagant new purchases behind a cushion on one of the leather chairs, feeling disapproval oozing from it at this act of desecration of such a serious setting.

In the event she was proved wrong. After an afternoon in the pool, followed by some sun-bathing, a white-clad servant emerged from the house ringing a bell signalling teatime. As Lucy was by then bone-dry, she hurriedly pulled jeans and T-shirt on over her costume, retrieved her undergarments, wrapped them in her towel and joined Tara and friends for tea under the gazebo on the rolling green lawns. She enjoyed the exchange of banter although she couldn’t do justice to the array of fancy cakes on offer and when she left shortly after, thanked Tara with genuine warmth for an enjoyable day.

On reaching her university res, Lucy changed out of her costume, but when she unwrapped the towel, found only her pair of briefs. Where was her bra? In a panic, she mentally retraced her steps and came to the conclusion that in her haste, she must have left it behind the cushion in the study as her towel certainly hadn’t come undone at any stage.
“At that price I’m damned if I’m leaving it there,” she said aloud, grabbing her car keys.
On reaching Tara’s house she saw that the gates had not yet been closed, so some of the guests must still be there. Lucy hadn’t planned what to say, but instead of going to the front door, went round the side of the house as the study had double doors opening onto the big veranda. Perhaps she could just slip in and grab the bra without anyone being the wiser? Best to go in boldly so that if she did meet someone it wouldn’t seem as if she were skulking furtively around.

Which she did, only to find herself face to face with a youth of about sixteen who could only be Tara’s younger brother as they looked so alike. He was standing by the window holding her bra up to the light, looking at it admiringly. Lucy’s brain seized up. What now? For a moment she and the boy looked wordlessly at one another, then Lucy said breathlessly.
“Oh. Sorry. I left something behind.” She went across to the imposing mahogany desk and made a pretence of looking for the lost item. “My specs,” she said apologetically, improvising madly.
The blushing boy stuffed the bra into his pocket, pulled open the top drawer and silently handed over a spectacle case.
“Here. I thought they were Andy’s,” he mumbled.
Lucy was completely thrown. The boy seemed equally so.
“Thanks,” she said, and fled.

Once back in res, she sat on her bed in a daze. Then ‘phoned Patsy.
“Pats, I’m in trouble.”
“Must’ve been a good party, but I thought it was only for girls? Oh, pardon me, ladies! As for being in trouble, isn’t it a bit early to tell?”
“Not that kind of trouble, idiot. Pats, I’ve lost my new bra. Tara’s brother has it!”
“My, you are a fast worker,” Patsy said admiringly. “I suppose with all that competition you had to do something drastic to grab his attention.”
Ignoring this sally, Lucy continued: “And I’ve now got a pair of spectacles with thick lenses belonging to a guy named Andy.”
“Sounds like a poor exchange. Did you catch this Andy peeking while you were stripping for Tara’s brother? Did you snatch them from his nose? Seems I owe Tara an apology. Those high-flyers really do live dissolute lives.”
“Pats, shut up and listen!” She told her friend what had happened. Patsy crowed with laughter.
“What do I do now? These specs look expensive. They’re prescription, Pats. I haven’t a clue who this Andy is, so how do I return them?”
“Let’s sleep on it,” said Patsy once she stopped chortling.

The next day, being well brought up, Lucy ‘phoned Tara to thank her again.
“I’m glad you had a good time,” Tara replied. “You left before all the drama erupted. My dad found my toad of a brother Brad with a girl’s bra dangling from his pocket and a smirk on his face. He said he’d found it but wouldn’t say where and had obviously been groping some cheap little piece in a back alley or somewhere equally squalid.”
“Oh?” Lucy said faintly. (Cheap? Wearing a ‘Victoria’s Secret’ bra?)
“And then he had the gall to try to lie his way out of it. He said he had no idea where it came from. God, Lucy, the size of those cups! Trust Brad to take up with some big-boobed, brainless bird. He’s ruled by his hormones. He also accused one of my friends of pinching his friend Andy’s glasses. He said she came into dad’s study and lifted them!”
“Oh,” said Lucy again, thinking dark thoughts about Brad. Lifted them indeed, when he had handed them to her with his own scurvy little mitts!
“And now he’s going around showing off that bra to all his classmates acting like Jack the Lad and impressing the hell out of them. Until now he’s been a bit of an outcast but is now the ‘main man!’ Boys of that age are so utterly, utterly juvenile.”
“Really?” Lucy flinched at the thought of her gorgeous bra doing the rounds in the hands of Brad’s smutty friends. Well, she certainly didn’t want it back now! Remembering what she’d paid for it, she stifled a groan.

Patsy stifled a groan too when she heard.
“You can say goodbye to it girl. Why didn’t you grab it and run when you first saw the little twerp with it?”
“I have my pride,” Lucy said stiffly.
“And a fat lot of good it’s done you! Well these days ‘Victoria’s Secret’ has one less secret to boast about now that your bra’s been pawed by all of Brad’s adolescent mates.”
“Stop Pats. I’ve had enough and don’t want to hear another word about the cursed thing. Besides, I’ve still got to find a way to get the specs back to Andy. He must be blind as a bat without them, poor thing, considering the thickness of the lenses.”
“Oh, that’s no problem. What you do is enclose them in bubblewrap, stick them in a cardboard cylinder – I’ve got one for you – plug the ends with tissues and post the lot off to Brad the Prat in brown paper wrapping, no return address. He can give them to his pal Andy.”
“Oh, I’m not just a pretty face. I’m graduating next week, remember?”

The following Monday all the graduands had to meet at the university to collect the gowns they had hired for the ceremony. Lucy saw Tara in the queue and waited for her, wanting to find out whether the spectacles had reached Brad safely. She could hardly ask, so tried a tentative question.
“Hi, Tara. Er, how’s your brother?”
“As obnoxious as usual, still playing the man of mystery. He got something in the mail yesterday wrapped in brown paper. When I asked what it was, he said it was a porn
“It was not!” Lucy denied hotly before she could help herself, but it must have sounded like an exclamation, as Tara continued:
“Who knows? I wouldn’t put it past him to rush out and buy one just to fan the flames of his burgeoning reputation as a man of the world. He’ll probably tell his set that the babe with the big boobs posted it to him.” (The only grain of truth in his latest fabrication of lies, Lucy thought sourly.)
Tara grinned. “He’s such a child! Sweet really. Did I tell you he’s coming to see me graduate? My dad can’t make it as he’ll be away on business, so Brad’s using his ticket and accompanying my mum.”

Lucy caught up with Patsy in the cafeteria.
“What’s up, kid? You look pale.”
“I’ve reason to. Tara’s horrible brother’s coming to the graduation ceremony. Pats, the moment I walk across that stage he’ll recognise me; we were only feet apart in the study. If he’s got half a brain he’ll have worked out by now that I was coming back for my bra, not Andy’s specs. Once he’s seen me again he’ll quiz Tara about me and as he obviously doesn’t have an ounce of subtlety, it’s only a matter of time before it’ll all come out. Oh hell, I wish I was dead!”
“Hey, hey, steady on. We’ll think of something.”

The ‘something’ they resorted to was to change Lucy’s appearance as much as possible. As her body would be draped in an academic gown it would indistinguishable from that of the other graduands, so they concentrated on her head.
“You’ll have to cut your hair. Dye it blonde. That should do it.”
“I’m broke, remember? I can’t afford a hairdresser.”
“Neither can I. Well, you’ll just have to trust me. I’ll do my best.”

Patsy’s best turned out to be far from good. Looking at her image in the mirror just before the ceremony, Lucy wondered what her parents would make of her. They were travelling in from the country village they’d retired to, especially for the ceremony and would be appalled by her appearance. Patsy had used the pair of scissors ruthlessly, shearing off all her black curls. What little hair was left was now brassy blonde and protruded from her scalp in defiant spikes.
“I really do look like a bosomy cheap tart,” she mourned, “All I need to complete the picture are black leathers and a motor bike!”
“Look on the bright side, doll. No-one will recognise you.”
“Not even my parents,” Lucy agreed.

Nor did they when she waved to them before taking her allotted seat near the front of the auditorium. As they’d had a long journey, there had been no time to meet up with their daughter beforehand.
Mr and Mrs Anthony exchanged horrified glances.
“What has she done?” Mrs Anthony whispered, “and why?”
“God alone knows.” Mr Anthony was gob-smacked. He’d always taken great pride in his daughter’s good sense, yet here she was appearing in public looking like … well, like someone other parents wouldn’t want their offspring associating with!

Lucy only relaxed at the “cheese and wine” after the ceremony, when Tara gave her a glassy stare and turned her back on her. No fear of being introduced to Tara’s family and hence no further danger.
“I know I should feel pleased about it,” she told Patsy when they found a quiet spot to converse, “but actually I feel slighted! There’s got to be a lesson in all of this, but I can’t fathom out what it is.”
“Stick to your own kind? Pride goes before a fall? What does it matter, anyway. You never cared much for Tara so it’s no skin off your nose. Look on the bright side. Good comes from everything.”
“Oh yeh? Do tell. Who benefited from this debacle?”
“Well, Brad’s friend for one. He got his glasses back.”
“He wouldn’t have lost them if I hadn’t nicked ’em.”
“OK. So what about Brad himself? You’ve done his self-image a power of good.”
“In time his dad’s money would have done that for him. Besides, it’s no comfort to know all I’m good for is revving up the testosterone level of some horny adolescent.”
“Jees, Lucy, you’re hard to please! How about your make-over?”
Lucy sighed. “Look at me, Pats. Something from a freaking comic strip. My parents are in a state of shock.”
“They are, aren’t they? Your dad looks as if he’ll never recover,” Patsy giggled.
“No doubt in time I’ll look back on all this and find it hilarious.”
“It’s hilarious now, babe. Take my word for it.” Patsy took a swig of wine before adding “Cheers, Luce. Here’s to the future.”
“May it be blissfully uneventful!”
The two girls looked at one another and dissolved into laughter. Mrs Anthony turned to her husband who had been chatting to the vice-chancellor.
“She might look different, Harry, but she hasn’t changed. Not really. Look at her.”
Mr Anthony looked but all he could see was a caricature of his beautiful daughter.
“Let’s hope so, Celia. She’s obviously got more of your frivolous side of the family in her than I realised.”

Mirror Image

My twin sister Karen and I were very close. She was my only living relative. It would have been hard enough coming to terms with her death in the normal course of events, but actually being with her and only one step ahead when the scaffolding in the entrance hall of the building in which we both worked colapsed and buried her, was more than I could take. I had a complete nervous breakdown.

I remember very little of the time immediately after the accident, drifting in and out of a sleep-induced hospital world. Just how long I stayed in that twilight zone I can’t recall, but was relatively clear-headed when, one evening, the supervising doctor sat by my bedside and looked at me quizzically.
“Rita, we’ve done all we can for you here. You must be aware that it’s your mind that needs therapy and this facility isn’t equipped to deal with the intensive treatment you that you require. Tomorrow,” he said, taking my hand in his and patting it kindly, “you’ll be moved to a place in the country where you’ll be helped to face what has happened and move on.”

Panic immediately flooded through me. “I don’t want to go. Please keep me here.” The idea of another major change in my circumstances threatened to loosen the fragile grip I had on reality. The doctor shook his head. “You’re beyond our help Rita, but I promise you that your stay at Midway Manor will be productive and that you’ll soon be strong again.”

Given no choice, I was carted away in a car the following morning, one of the hospital staff driving me. It was a very silent journey as I was again in something of a stupor through the calming drug I was given shortly before setting off. My driver didn’t try to converse and seemed content to leave me to my unsettled thoughts. Scenery flitted by, mostly unobserved, other than that as time went by we moved into a more pastoral setting. After what seemed like hours, the car finally arrived at a pair of wrought-iron gates. My driver spoke briefly into an intercom, the gates opened and we drove slowly along a winding driveway before stopping in front of a large, imposing structure that may once have been a manor house. Ivy-clad red stone and age where my first impressions.

I was handed over to a white clad ‘attendant’, as he introduced himself, who insisted on helping me into a wheel chair and pushing me up a ramp running alongside the flight of steps leading into the rehabilitation centre or whatever it chose to call itself. The inside of the building was far more modern than its exterior. Offices and consulting rooms surrounded what was once a baronial hall, with a bank of lifts flanking one side. I was wheeled into one and taken to the first floor. Nervous energy had cleared my mind and I saw that the lift could go up a further flight and wondered briefly how many patients could be accommodated.

My first few days were taken up with interviews with different personnel and doctors and a brief orientation tour, again in the wheelchair, although I was fully capable of walking when not heavily sedated. The tour did not extend to the upper floor but only the one I was on. This had been converted into a long corridor with private en-suite rooms either side, about two dozen in all, no doubt similar to the one allotted to me. Small, clinically white and spotlessly clean. Midway along the passage was a quite decent library on the left and a communal sitting room on the right. I asked the attendant who was wheeling me what was on the upper floor. “More of the same,” he said. “Now let’s show you the gardens.” These consisted largely of manicured lawns scattered with garden beds and shady groups of trees with benches beneath for those patients who wished to use them.

It was only once I had been at Midway Manor for a week and was more or less settled into a routine of sessions with psychologist, psychiatrist and different therapists that it dawned on me that I seldom saw any of the other patients. There was one woman who sometimes made use of the communal sitting room at the same time as I did, but she buried her face in her library book and apart from darting frightened looks my way, ignored my presence. Then there was an old man who seemed to spend most of his time walking up and down the corridor, muttering unintelligibly to himself.

Once I had plucked up courage and started wandering around the building, I met up with some of the other patients, but they all seemed beset by fears and averted their heads when they saw me. Passing some of the rooms, one could not help but be aware of the presence of those occupying them, as some wailed, others called out and a few either sang or talked to themselves. It occurred to me that my mental state was worse than I had thought, as this institution was clearly for the grossly, of not dangerously, insane! This being so, it was surprising that we were allowed so much freedom. I could go where I liked anywhere within the building and in the grounds during those times when I was not undergoing treatment.

For the first few weeks I contented myself with keeping to my own floor and wandering round the ground floor, peering into offices and consultant’s reception rooms, or going for walks in the garden. For some reason I felt reluctant, almost afraid, to climb the flight of stairs to the top level; the “more of the same” of the white-clad attendant.

My psychologist seemed pleased that I was venturing further afield than my room. “You’re making great progress,” he said encouragingly. “At this rate you’ll soon be on your way.” This was a relief as I’d got to wondering how much of the costs would be borne by my medical scheme and how much I would be expected to fork out from my meagre savings. The psychiatrist, too, seemed content with my calmer state of mind and was prescribing fewer and fewer drugs for me. “You’ll not be needing any, pretty soon. There’s just one more major step you have to take.” When I asked what it was, he smiled enigmatically and said, “You’ll know when you get there.”

One rainy day when I’d walked up and down the corridor umpteen times and had enough of the book I was reading, I tried to strike up a conversation with Sue Ann, the woman who sometimes read in the sitting room. She looked aghast, mouthed something silently and skittered back to her room like a frightened mouse. So much for that! The gardens were out, as the rain was still bucketing down, so what next?

Time to explore the upper floor, I decided, and made my way up the flight of stairs. Great was my disappointment on seeing that indeed it was just like the lower, excepting that at the point where we had a library and sitting room, were a pair of wide glass doors dividing the passageway. I wandered towards them, curious as to what could lie beyond. Just more en-suite rooms either side, identical to all the others! I tried to prise the doors open, without success. There were no handles. How stupid, I thought crossly, to have doors that don’t open, then noticed that there was a strip of matting on the other side of the door of the kind that contains an electronic device that activates the doors when someone treads on it. So, I reasoned, patients on the other side of the door could come through if they wished, but those on this side couldn’t. Was that because “they” suffered from mild cases of mental impairment while “we” were the really demented? I turned away in frustration and started walking back the way I had come.

About halfway along the corridor, something made me look back. Far down the passage, way beyond the glass doors, two people were walking towards me. I stopped and watched them. As they came closer, all the breath left my body as I recognised the person on the left. It was my twin, Karen! How could this be? At the same time as I recognised her, she saw me. Her face lit up and she started running towards the doors. I, too, moved towards them and it was only then that I saw that the man running after her was her fiance, Robert. I stopped in confusion. How could Robert be with Karen? He was alive and she was dead; I was seeing a ghost! Karen had reached the strip of matting and the glass doors opened. “Rita,” she cried joyfully, arms outstretched towards me. Robert caught up with her and pulled her back into his arms. “My darling,” I heard him say tenderly as I moved forward to meet my beloved sister, “It’s grief that’s making you imagine you’re seeing Rita.”

The glass doors started to close noiselessly. I surged forwards in an effort to reach them before they shut, and stumbled when I heard Robert add, “She died in that accident, remember? Let me take you back to your room. The nurse can give you something to make you sleep. When you wake up, you’ll feel much better.”

The doors closed. I hammered on them with my fists. Robert and Karen were walking back the way they had come. I cried out in anguish. Karen turned and looked back at me just once, eyes filled with tears. Their figures blurred as they receded into the distance and I was left alone with my jumbled thoughts.