I woke up early with anticipation. After using the washroom, I opened my wardrobe and found the clothes that I had picked out the night before. I began to dress myself with some deliberation, making certain that each button and tie was in place, and any wrinkles smoothened out. I wore a white buttoned blouse, with long sleeves that were cuffed neatly. I pulled it tight and tucked it into my skirt. It was a plain skirt, with none of my usual ruffles, coloured a bright orange. I checked the mirror to put my hair up. As I began to tie one bow, I stopped myself.
Hmm… I lowered my hand slightly and looked at the white ribbon. Looking again at the mirror, I hesitated. Slowly, I walked to the wardrobe and placed the ribbons back inside. I returned to the mirror and ran my fingers through my wavy hair several times. I walked to the bay window and drew back the curtains, letting the morning’s light fill the room with its lively cheer, and smiled as I was filled with a sense of confidence. Resisting the urge to skip, I walked proudly down the steps and entered the kitchen, where I saw Alice cooking breakfast. She looked up as she heard me enter.
“Good morning, Mary. Did you sleep well?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied. I brushed my hair out of my face. “A-and how are you?”
“I’m well,” she replied. “Father had to leave for a meeting over breakfast, and Mother is teaching today, so I’m preparing your breakfast this morning. I hope that’s alright.” She added some sausage to a pan.
“Oh, they left already?” I asked. “I mean, that’s alright! I-I like it when you cook for me…”
Alice smiled. “You’re well-dressed today, aren’t you?” she asked.
“A young lady ought to present herself well when going out in public,” I said, taking a seat at a stool by the counter. I tried not to smile.
“Oh? Where are you going?” Alice asked.
“I’m meeting Elli for tea in an hour,” I replied.
“Oh, that’s right!” said Alice. “I must’ve forgotten.” She took out two cups and filled them with tea. “I believe you will get along splendidly. You two share an enthusiasm for life that warms my heart. It’s good for that excitement to be shared.”
“Alice?” I asked.
“Yes?” she replied.
“Why don’t you let one of your servants cook for you?” I asked.
She frowned. “Why would I? I’m perfectly capable of it.”
I waved my hands back and forth. “I-it’s not that you aren’t, I just thought they might—”
“They work hard enough as it is. Besides, I enjoy it.” She moved the sausage to two empty plates, followed by eggs and beans, and handed one of the plates to me, along with a cup of tea. She sat across from me, and bowed her head for a moment. I watched. Upon raising it, she looked at me.
“Oh,” she said, blushing. “Did you want me to say that out loud? I didn’t want to be impolite. If you’d like me to say it next time, I won’t mind.”
“O-oh, no, I—” I began.
“Do you say grace before your meals?” asked Alice. “I suppose I should have asked first.”
“Y-yes,” I said. “N-not always,” I added, looking down at my food.
“I think it’s important,” said Alice. “It’s a small gesture, but it reminds us to be humble.” She took a bite of her food.
“It’s satisfying to be able to eat something and know that you made it yourself,” she said after a pause. “Don’t you think so?”
“I haven’t really cooked anything on my own before,” I said. I tried to pull my hair behind my ears, but it fell forward anyway.
“It’s that way with art though, isn’t it? You can look at a finished drawing and know that it was you who made that.”
“I’ve never really thought of it that way,” I replied. I reached for one of my pigtails to find it missing. Remembering my intentions, I looked up at Alice, watching as she ate. I fixed my posture, sitting a bit straighter, and turned my fork around in my hand to grip it more lightly. This isn’t so hard, I thought.
As I finished breakfast, I heard the door open in the other room.
“Good morning!” a voice sang out. Loud footsteps made their way into the kitchen. “How are we on this fine day?”
I looked behind me and saw Elli standing at the entrance, with one hand on her hip. In her other hand was a cup of tea.
“Good morning, Elli,” said Alice, pausing in her cleanup efforts to give her friend her attention. Elli hopped up on the counter and began swinging her legs back and forth.
“G-good morning,” I said, brushing my hair out of my face.
“It’s a nice day to do stuff,” said Elli, swaying from side to side. She turned round. “There’s a new clothing shop that opened last week, I want to check it out.”
“Whatever you like,” said Alice, resuming her work. Elli looked at me.
“Good morning, darling, what have you been up to?”
Stop calling me that… “N-not much,” I said. I crossed my arms in front of my chest.
Elli hopped down from the counter and circled around to where I was sitting.
“You look fancy today,” she said.
I smiled, standing from my chair and curtseying. A smug satisfaction rose inside of me.
“It’s cute,” she added, winking. I looked up quickly to scowl at her and exclaimed as I tripped over my own foot on my way back to my seat.
Elli laughed, and turned to face Alice.
“So Ally, what do you say we head to that shop when you’re done?”
“I would be happy to,” said Alice.
“You want to come?” Elli asked me.
“O-of course,” I said, brushing my hair out of my face again.
“Let me get my parasol,” said Alice. She disappeared from the room. Elli walked over to me.
“Hold still, darling,” she said, undoing the large bow from her hat. She took my shoulders and turned me round, tying the bow into my hair to form a ponytail. She turned me back round to face her.
“There we are,” she said, smiling.
“Th-thanks,” I mumbled, putting my hands together.
Alice reappeared with a white parasol. “Shall we go?” she asked.
❀ ❀ ❀
It was hot out. The sky was a deep blue, with the occasional puffy white cloud. Birds chirped from all directions, filling the air with a lively cheer. I couldn’t help but smile as I fought the urge to start skipping. It’s only when you try not to do a thing that you realise you do it quite often.
As we neared town, I could hear the overlapping speech of pedestrians grow louder as we walked. Beside me, Alice and Elli were deep in conversation.
“Do you really think this colour looks good on me?” asked Elli, looking down at the light blue blouse she was wearing.
“I think it looks lovely, Elli,” said Alice. “I don’t know why you keep asking me.”
“Well, I can’t quite afford a tailor every time I go shopping. I was so excited that this one happened to fit so well that I bought it immediately, but I’m not sure about the colour.”
“Oh, I have a dress in that colou—” I began.
“If you can’t afford a tailor, you can always ask me. I would be happy to pay for one for you,” said Alice, taking Elli’s hand.
“Oh Ally dear, I can’t ask you to do that for me,” she said, pulling away from Alice. “You know what Amelia would do if she found out.”
“How would she?” asked Alice.
“Nothing gets past her,” said Elli. “I have too many connections to risk losing them over something like that. They’ll just say I’m no different than they are.”
“Elli?” I asked.
“I think you’re taking it too seriously, Elli,” said Alice. “But I understand. Really, it’s lovely, and I think you should wear it more often.”
“Elli!” I tugged on her shirt. She turned in my direction.
“What is it, darling?” she asked.
“I-I, uh… I like it too,” I said, forgetting why I wanted her attention in the first place.
“Well, then,” said Elli, smiling. “If you both insist.”
At this point, we had made it into town. As we walked down the sidewalk, Elli stopped suddenly.
“Ally, come here, I want you to see something,” she said, ducking into a shop immediately to her left.
“What? Elli!” called Alice, following after her. I followed them inside.
We entered a small building filled with carefully crafted dolls and other figures. Behind a desk, a man sat, focusing intently as he painted a figurine. He looked up upon hearing us enter the shop.
“Oh, hello,” he said warmly. “Look around, take your time. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.” He resumed painting.
“Thank you,” said Alice, bowing slightly. She turned to Elli. “What was it you wanted to show me?”
“Uh, I-I was wandering round town the other day and happened upon this place. The figurines reminded me of your collection, and I thought you might like to see them.”
“They’re quite lovely,” said Alice, turning towards the door, “but I thought we were going to the place you mentioned earlier?”
“Wait,” said Elli, taking her arm and glancing out the window. “Just — stay a moment longer, please? Come here.” She walked in the opposite direction, pulling Alice along with her.
I turned to look out the window. A man was trying to sell something to a couple that passed by, although the looks on their faces indicated that they didn’t want to be there much longer. Two boys about Alice’s age were walking by, engaged in a game of some kind, one of them trying to catch something from the other’s hands. I turned my attention to the figurines displayed all over the shop. They were of all shapes and sizes, ranging from a lone doll to a scale model of a small village. I made my way round the shop, admiring the detailed work.
“You like them?” said a voice.
I turned round in surprise. The man who I presumed to be the owner of the shop was speaking to me. He smiled through his thick, greying beard.
“D-did you make these?” I asked.
“Sure did,” he replied, continuing to paint a figure of a little owl barely the size of his thumb. “This whole shop here is my life’s work. Means a lot to me that enough people care enough about these little things to keep me in business.”
I thought for a moment, forming my words carefully. “Did you always do this for a living?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he said. “When I was in school, I wanted to be a painter. An artist. My parents didn’t understand why I would be interested in something that paid so little. Maybe they were right, because I certainly couldn’t keep it up. Business got slow, and I had to find new work, so I became a carpenter. Learned how to work with wood. Once I was back on my feet, I decided to take another shot this whole thing. Used the money I’d saved up to buy this place, and I’ve been making these figurines ever since.”
“Wow…” I said.
The man laughed. “You look like the kind of person who appreciates good art,” he said. “Are you an artist yourself?”
My face flushed. “I-I draw sometimes…”
“Yeah? What would you say art means to you?” he asked.
I began twirling my finger in my ponytail. “It makes me happy,” I said finally.
I frowned. “I-I don’t know, what kind of a question is that?“
The man laughed. “What’s your name, lass?” he asked.
“M-Mary,” I said.
“Well, Mary,” he said, putting his tools down. “I’m always glad to see young people take an interest in creative pursuits.” He held out his hand. “Here, take this,” he said, dropping the little owl figurine into my open palm.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s an owl,” he said. “You know what owls are? They’re wise. I want you to hold on to that for me, alright? Let it remind you that you’re never too old to stop learning. Don’t be cocky, like I was.”
“Oh, but how much—” I began.
“It’s free,” he said, smiling. “Come by again someday and show me your work.”
I closed my palm around the owl, putting it carefully into my pocket.
“Oh,” he said. I turned round. “And the name’s Devin.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mister Devin sir!” I said in my most polite voice. He laughed.
“Likewise,” he said.
On the other side of the shop, Alice and Elli were looking at a figure of a yellow-eyed bird.
“Doesn’t that one eye look crooked to you?” asked Elli.
“Stop that,” said Alice, hitting her lightly on the arm.
She turned to me. “Oh, Mary, are you ready to leave?“
“Y-yes,” I said.
“Onward!” Elli shouted, throwing her hand in the air, with one finger pointing upwards.
❀ ❀ ❀
We found the clothing shop near the café where Alice and I had eaten lunch the previous day. It had a small but charming exterior, with a single door on the right end and a window showcasing two mannequins, featuring both mens’ and womens’ clothing.
We went inside and were surrounded by a surprisingly large collection of fine clothing of various kinds; frilly dresses, overcoats, and lots of thinner clothing for the warm months.
“Isn’t it grand?” asked Elli, beaming.
It was quite a sight. “I don’t know where to start,” I said.
“I do,” said Elli, tugging on her skirt. “I need something new for the summer. I’m starting to get bored of my current wardrobe.” She turned to Alice. “What about you, Ally?”
Alice blushed. “I-I don’t need anything,” she said.
Elli walked ahead and picked a rose gold dress off a rack. It was multi-layered, adorned with many ribbons and bows. “You’d look cute in this, darling,” she said to me.
I frowned. “I-I don’t want anything like that,” I said.
“You don’t?” asked Elli, a surprised look on her face. “Something simpler, then?”
“I’ll look on my own, if y—” I started, before softening my tone of voice. “I mean, I think I can find something myself, th-thank you.”
“Please let me know if you would like any help,” said Alice.
I walked slowly past the items, observing what I liked and didn’t like about each. Soon, my eye was caught by a pale orange dress. It was simple; short-sleeved with a thin profile. A long ribbon ran round the waist that could be tied into a bow. I smiled, imagining how sophisticated I’d look in something like this. I held it up to my shoulders, but was disappointed to find the sleeves went to my elbows and the hem dragged on the ground.
“It’s a bit long, isn’t it darling?” said Elli, appearing beside me. Draped across her arms were two or three skirts in bright colours. Hurriedly, I put the dress back, turning back to Elli with crossed arms.
“I’ll decide if it’s too long or not,” I said.
Elli smiled. “Come here, we’ll try and narrow your options,” she said, heading towards a desk in the back of the shop. I followed.
“My friend here needs measured,” said Elli, speaking to the woman at the desk.
“I can speak for myself,” I said.
The woman took out some measuring tape and came round to the front of the desk, taking my measurements and writing them down. I stood still as she did this, trying to hide my embarrassment.
She handed me a small piece of paper with some numbers scribbled down on it. “I don’t think we carry anything in your size. You are free to look around, but you might want to try the place over on George St., they sell children’s clothing there.“
I stuffed the paper in my pocket and walked away without a word. Alice came to meet me.
“Did you find anything?” she asked.
“She was told to check the children’s place on the other street,” said Elli, snickering.
“You’re not much taller than I,” I said to Elli, “how come you have no trouble here?”
“Oh, I get nearly everything tailored if I can afford to,” said Elli. “The skirts are always too long, and the shirts are always too tight. If there’s something here you like, we can try to fix it. Unless you want to look at that other place…”
“I will not,” I said. I stormed out of the building, my arms crossed. Alice followed, running to meet me.
“Mary, what’s the matter?” she asked, leaning down and putting her hand on my shoulder.
“I’m not going to that other shop,” I said.
She paused. “Did you find something you liked here?” she asked.
“Th-there was this one dress, but it was too big for me,” I said, resuming my pace. “It doesn’t matter anymore.“
Alice took my arm and stopped me. She pulled me close and took my hands.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said gently. “I think the weather might be getting to you. Some tea will make you feel better. I’m hungry, anyway. Let’s find some place to eat, and take your mind off it, alright?”
I relaxed and nodded, following her back to the shop. Elli exited as we neared it, holding a white bag.
“I got them, ten percent off!” she said, grinning.
Alice sighed. “Please don’t tell me you negotiated your way out of paying full price again.”
“You should’ve seen the look on his face,” said Elli, her grin widening. “He was an amateur. Easiest bargain I ever got. I’d have gone lower, too, but I pitied him.” She directed her attention to me. “Darling, can I have that piece of paper?”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” I said, taking it from my pocket and holding it out. She took it. I began walking on ahead.
“Café’s this way, darling!” Elli called. I turned round to see Alice and Elli walking the opposite way.
“W-wait up!” I called back, running to catch up.
❀ ❀ ❀
We sat just outside the café, at a table covered in a white cloth. On it was a three-tiered stand filled with little frosted cakes and things. Alice was right — I relaxed considerably as I drank my tea. As I enjoyed it, I listened to Alice and Elli converse.
“How has your week been, Elli?” asked Alice. “I’ve barely seen you since school let out.”
“I’ve been dreadfully busy with lessons and all that,” said Elli. “Things will calm down in a few weeks after recitals.”
“What about you, though?” asked Alice, tilting her head to one side.
“What are you doing outside of lessons?” Alice clarified.
“Oh, nothing important really,” said Elli. “I found a tea specialist near here who might pay me over the summer to help with his work,” she said.
Alice smiled brightly. “That’s wonderful, Elli, I’m so happy for you!”
Elli smiled back, waving her hand dismissively. “Don’t expect much to come of it,” she said. She leaned back and put her arms behind her head. “It’ll get my mother off my back, and it gives me an excuse to make tea all the time.”
“What about your mother?” I asked.
“Oh, she just keeps nagging at me. ‘Get outside more, you need to do something with your life,’ things like that.”
“She’s only trying to help you,” said Alice. “She just doesn’t want you goofing off so much.”
“Well, if she’s going to make me get outside more, you’re coming with me,” said Elli.
“I would love to, but I need to focus on my studies,” said Alice. “Entrance exams will come up very quickly and I want to be prepared.”
“We’ve been over this, Ally, you’ll do just fine,” said Elli.
Alice’s speech quickened. “If I don’t study, I might fail the exams, and if I fail the exams, I might—”
Alice looked down, letting her hair hide the sides of her face. “I just don’t want anyone thinking I—”
Elli put her hand on Alice’s shoulder. “Keep your chin up,” she said. Alice lifted her head.
“Your hair was in your tea,” said Elli, grinning.
Alice smiled, brushing her hair back and shaking her head.
“Excuse me,” said Alice. “I’m going to find a washroom.” She left the table.
My eyes began to wander as my attention wained. I spotted a little blue and red hummingbird by the hedges that lined the fenced area. I took out a pen and a little notebook from my purse and began scribbling. Slowly, a picture began to take form.
Elli leaned across the table to get a look at my work. “What’s that?” she asked.
I looked up, startled. I was about to hide the notebook, but restrained myself. “I-It’s a hummingbird,” I said.
“It looks so real!” said Elli, her eyes widening in amazement.
“D-do you think so?” I asked.
“Absolutely!” she replied. I smiled as a warm feeling rose in my chest.
“Do you take lessons?” asked Elli.
“Just art class in school,” I said, beginning to add details to the bird’s feathers.
“What do you like to draw most?” she asked.
“Birds, and trees, and bugs, and flowers and plants and things,” I said.
“I used to draw some when I was a child,” said Elli.
“You don’t anymore?” I asked.
“Not interested,” said Elli. “I have other things taking up my time anyway.”
Alice approached the table, sitting back down. I quickly stuffed the notebook back into my purse. “You mean, like sitting in my study, complaining about people who make tea wrong?” she asked, smiling.
Elli frowned. “If one is going to make a cup of tea, they ought to do it right,” she said. She held up her cup and narrowed her eyes. “I give this a… Three out of five.”
Alice laughed and shook her head.
“Do you know a lot about tea?” I asked.
“But of course, darling,” said Elli. “I attended many social gatherings as a child. When you don’t have much to say, you end up drinking quite a lot of tea.”
“You’re the most talkative person I know, and you still drink more than anyone I’ve ever met,” said Alice.
“Well fine, I’ll stop drinking your tea then,” said Elli.
“You are always welcome in my home, and I’ll make you tea whenever you want,” said Alice, putting her hand on Elli’s arm.
Elli pulled her arm back and waved her off. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, smiling.
Before long, we finished our meal. I saw the price on the paper the waiter left us — it wasn’t too high.
“I-I can pay for it!” I said, raising my hand.
“Hmm?” said Alice. “No, don’t worry about it, Mary, I’ll take care of it.”
“B-but I want to,” I said, taking out my handbag. “I was—”
“I was the one who suggested it anyway,” said Alice. “It’s my responsibility.”
I gripped the end of the table and frowned. I opened my mouth to say something, but paused.
“I-If you insist,” I said, finally.
We stood outside the café, preparing to head back to Alice’s.
“Well, then,” said Elli, stretching. “I’ve something to do before I go home, so I’ll say goodbye here.”
Alice came forward and embraced Elli, squeezing her tightly. Letting go, she held Elli at arm’s length. “Thank you for joining Mary and I,” she said. “It was a wonderful afternoon. I hope we can meet together again soon.”
“Don’t embarrass me,” said Elli, smiling.
I cleared my throat. “It was a splendid afternoon,” I said. “Thank you for your help… Before.”
Elli smiled. “Anytime, darling.”
I reached for my ponytail, and suddenly remembered the ribbon in my hair.
“Oh, Elli!” I began to remove the ribbon.
“Oh, darling, keep it,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t need it,” she said. “Take care, darling. And keep it up,” she added, winking. She left, and Alice and I began our walk back from town.
We were mostly silent for the first several minutes of our walk. We passed by a sign labeled ‘George St.’ Alice stopped me.
“Are you sure you don’t want to try the children’s shop over here?” she asked.
“Quite,” I said tersely, picking up my pace.
“Elli thought it might be a good idea,” said Alice.
“I-I still don’t want to,” I said. A moment of silence passed.
“What did you think about her?” asked Alice.
“About who?” I replied.
“What did you think about Elli?” she said. “I told you that you ought to get to know her.”
I touched the ribbon in my hair. I had sort of blown my second impression, but if Elli noticed, she didn’t seem to care. She was peculiar, but perhaps Alice was right. “… Maybe she’s not so bad,” I said quietly.
“She’s really quite nice when you get to know her,” said Alice. “I know you two will get closer over time.”
“You two seem close,” I said.
Alice smiled and tilted her head to one side. “I love her very much,” she said, blushing. “I’d be lost without her. I’m glad I have her around at school.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Oh, n-nothing,” said Alice. “Forget I mentioned it.” She smiled again. “Let’s go play another game of chess, hmm?“
“S-sure!” I said. “I’ll win this time!”