"Oh! Mary, darling, come look at this!"
My nose was pressed to a glass aquarium. I heard Elli calling my name, but I didn't fully register what she was saying. My wrist was taken roughly, and I was forced away from the aquarium.
"Leave those turtles alone!" Elli reprimanded.
"But they're so cute!" I complained.
"We're here for a reason, my dear; so try not to get distracted. Now then!" She lead me to where she'd been standing, and took up a light pink dress; with thin, green floral patterns. I came closer, and she held it up in front of me.
"How does it look?" I asked.
"Hmm..." Elli furrowed her brow. "The green is a bit darker than I thought. Ah, well! Let's keep looking!" She placed it back on the rack, and continued to look through the items for sale. I watched closely as she did so. She moved quickly; sometimes skipping items, sometimes hesitating. Every now and then, she would rub her fingers together on the fabric. Her eyes were narrowed in focus. I wondered what she was thinking about. She skipped past several dresses I thought were rather pretty...
"Elli?" I asked. "Are you looking for something specific?"
"I'm looking for something that suits you, darling," she said, without looking up.
"... How can you tell if you find it?" I asked.
She paused and turned round. "Well, you're quite small, my dear; something extravagant will swallow you up. Your skin's rather fair, so I think it best to avoid bold colours that might steal the show away from you. You're a slight thing, so a vertical neckline will only make you look thinner — and to be honest, dear, a low neckline won't do you any good. Something parallel to your shoulders will balance you out. You have a pretty face, so let's highlight that, hmm?"
I listened in a sort of awe. "H-how did you learn that--to do that?" I asked.
"Oh, I've experimented a bit with my own wardrobe here and there," Elli replied, inspecting another pink dress. "I've learnt to tell what looks good on people. I wish I could wear half the things you do, darling, but I haven't the figure for them," she added with a laugh.
I smiled sheepishly. Maybe that made me unique?
"Ah!" Elli exclaimed, taking a dress down from a rack. "How do you like this?"
It was a long, sleeveless dress, in dark blue. I held it up to my shoulders, and its hem fell to my ankles. It was made of a fairly thin, smooth fabric, and there were no patterns on it, nor any other decorations at all.
"It's pretty," I said, "but... don't you think it's a bit... plain?"
"It won't be when I'm done with it," said Elli. "Trust me?"
"O-okay!" I said.
❀ ❀ ❀
Back at Alice's, I stood in front of the mirror in my room and watched the motion of my dress as I twirled about from side to side. I couldn't keep myself from smiling. Elli had me wear an underskirt to give the lower half of the dress more volume, which looked more pleasing to me than before.
Elli re-entered the room, holding a long piece of silk, beige in colour. "I borrowed this ribbon from Alice," she said. "Hold still."
I did as I was told, and she tied it round me, just below my chest.
"Makes you look taller, doesn't it?" she said.
I smiled. "Does it really?" I paused. "Can you make it into a bow?"
"Already on it," she said, tying a big wide bow behind me. "What do you think?".
"When you showed it to me at the shop, I was... afraid it would be a bit dull," I said, "but... I think I like it!"
"I told you you would," said Elli, tilting her head upwards slightly to look down at me with a grin. "Now for your hair," she said, starting to rummage through a drawer for a brush. "Can you take those ribbons out of your hair for me, darling?"
I held onto my pigtails. "I like my hair like this!" I said.
Elli flipped the hairbrush round in her hand. "You'll like it even more when I'm done," she said.
I said nothing.
"We can always change it back if you don't like it," she said. "Though I'm certain you will."
"I-if you say so..." Slowly, I undid the ribbons in my hair, and handed them to her. She put them down on the set of drawers. I kept my eyes on them as she began to brush my hair. Her strokes were quick and rhythmical, and although it hurt a little, I tried to suppress my grunts of discomfort. She gathered my hair behind me and twisted it several times, then held one hand to the back of my head as she manoeuvred my hair with the other. I couldn't tell exactly what she was doing. I kept my eyes on my ribbons, fighting the urge to fidget. Elli inserted several pins into the back of my hair, then adjusted it a little more. Eventually, she stepped back and looked at me through the mirror.
"Dah-na-na-na-naaaaaaaa!" she sang, holding up a hand mirror so I could see the back of my head. "It's called a chignon; isn't it lovely?"
I turned round to look at it from a few different angles. I grinned, but I wasn't sure what to think. I didn't dislike it at all — it was quite pretty — but it felt so foreign to me.
"Well?" asked Elli. "Don't just stare." I opened my mouth to respond, but Elli interrupted me before I could speak. "No, wait just a moment!" she said, taking one of my ribbons from the drawer. She tied it into a bow at the back of my head.
My cheeks reddened, and I smiled spontaneously. "I love it," I said, looking down.
"Now!" said Elli, clapping her hands together. "Get your shoes! I'm going to teach you how to introduce yourself."
"W-why do I need my shoes?" I asked.
"Because if you fall when trying to curtsey in those heels, I make no promises not to laugh," Elli replied. "Go on!"
I did as I was told. I walked a little more slowly with them on. I never, ever wore heels; they were uncomfortable, and I couldn't jump in them. As I came closer to Elli, I tried to hide my smile, but the girl read my thoughts.
"Look at you," she said, "we're the same height now!"
I blushed, and said nothing in response.
"Right," said Elli. She took a step back. "I'm going to introduce myself, then you will." She cleared her throat and paused for a moment, then put on a bright smile.
"Good evening," she said, holding her skirt out and bowing slightly. "I am Elli Eldridge." She looked up at me expectantly.
I kept my eyes on her as I curtseyed. "H-hi," I said.
Elli snorted and looked away, putting her hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter. "You name, darling," she said.
"Mary Ann Bennet," I said, curtseying again.
"Wonderful!" Elli said, clapping. "Now, you initiate. Greet me loud and clear before you state your name." She took a step back and pretended to pay attention to her nails. I approached her.
"Hello," I said, wobbling a little as I curtseyed. Elli looked up at me. "I am Mary Ann Bennet."
Elli's eyes lit up, as though a switch had been flipped inside of her. "Elli Eldridge," she said, curtseying back. "It's a pleasure to meet you! Your shoes are lovely, where did you buy them?" She spoke quickly.
I looked down. "Um—ah, I don't remember," I said.
"What a shame," Elli replied. "We have a shoe store in town, but I don't think they sell anything like that."
I was silent for a moment.
"Go on, say something," Elli said, in a hushed tone.
"Like what?" I asked.
"Making conversation is easy if you direct it to the person you're speaking with. People love to talk about themselves! If you need something to say; talk about their outfit, the cause of your meeting, or their week. If someone has a blue coat, I say 'oh, what a charming coat, I don't see them in blue very often!' You see? They like the attention, and they'll pick up the conversation from there. If it stops again, I'll ask how they're enjoying the tea, or what they're planning to do tomorrow. Say whatever comes to your mind! If they look bored, I'll say good-bye and find someone else to talk to, or I'll refill my tea."
"That's... a lot to think about at once," I said. "I don't know if I can do it..."
"Of course you can, my dear! If I could do it, anybody can. You just need practise. I've told you that I used to attend these sorts of events all the time, haven't I?" I nodded. "When I was a child I went to two, sometimes three in a week! I couldn't speak English, so I simply sat and watched people, drinking tea the whole time. It was dreadful, really."
"But you got better, right?"
Elli nodded. "Eventually, I grew tired of watching people, so I started mimicking the way they would speak to one another, and the kinds of conversations they would have. Once I did that, I picked it up in no time at all!" She shifted her weight. "How many parties have you attended?"
I put my hand on my chin. "Mm... Seven or eight, I think? But I just played with the other children, I didn't really talk to any of the adults."
Elli put her arm on the wardrobe. "Tell me about one," she said.
I thought for a moment. "When I was ten—no, eleven years old, my family visited my father's parents in Cornwall, and my grandparents decided to have friends over. There were many people there, and I didn't know any of them, so it was scary to me. My grandparents had a room in their house where they grew lots and lots of different types of plants, so I hid away there." I felt myself beginning to blush, but I tried to ignore it. "I sat amongst a few tall pots with my sketchbook, and tried to draw a bit. After a short time, I heard the door open, and footsteps came my way. I remember pulling my knees up close to me to hide. This girl approached me — I think she was the daughter of one of the guests. She was nearly my age. She asked if she could watch me draw, so I let her. We made up stories together."
"Is that so?" said Elli. "So you had a secret party of your own, did you?" She waggled her fingers at me.
I laughed. "I guess so," I said.
"Well, take it from me, darling; you'll be the life of the party with a bit of practise!"
I sat down at the bay window, tired of standing still in my heels. "Do you really think so?" I asked.
"Absolutely!" Elli replied, taking a seat on the bed. "I had to teach Alice the same things, even though she'd had more experience than you."
Elli laughed. "The very first party I ever took Ally to — it was a going-away party held by one of our school's teachers, and all the children in our year and their families were invited. There were so many people there, you could feel the energy as you walked in!" Elli lied on the bed and looked up at the canopy. "I had a wonderful time for the twelve minutes I was there."
"Twelve?!" I asked. "What happened?"
"Ally couldn't take it," Elli said, sitting back up. "I found her crying in a corner, the poor child. I tried to console her, but she wouldn't listen to me. So we left, and I took her to a nearby café and — um, found — a table in the outdoor seating. I calmed her down there, and we spent the rest of the evening alone together. The look in her eyes when she thanked me that night has never left my memory."
She laughed. "Look at me, getting sentimental. She's began to rub off on me."
"That sounds... sweet," I said, smiling.
Elli lied on her back again. "I love that child, though, really," she said. "I think I might be lost without her."
I felt a warmth in my chest. "She... said the same thing to me about you, after you and I met."
"She never misses an opportunity to tell me," said Elli, sitting up again. "I used to think it would lose its charm over time, but each time she says those words to me, it feels like she's saying them for the first time. I guess that's how she feels."
"It must be... really... special, to have someone like that in your life," I said.
"... It is," Elli replied. A moment of silence passed.
"Bloody hell," Elli muttered, hopping suddenly off the bed.
"W-what is it?" I asked.
"This awful sappy feeling won't go away," she said, heading for the door.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"I'm going to find Alice and tell her something," she replied. "I'll be right back."
I stood and returned to the mirror, admiring my outfit. I felt almost like I was looking at a different person... No, it felt like a part of me I wasn't used to seeing. It felt a unnerving, but exciting at the same time. I twirled round some more, watching my dress move.
Elli reentered the room and fell back onto the bed, exhaling loudly.
"Do you feel better?" I asked.
"Yep," said Elli, grinning. She crossed her arms behind her head.
I sat back down at the bay window and crossed my arms at my wrists, resting them on my knee.
"Elli?" I asked. I reached for one of my pigtails, only to find it missing.
I put my fingers together and looked down. "I love you," I said, quietly. An infinitely long five seconds passed.
"I love you too, darling," said Elli.
I smiled as the warm feeling in my chest spread to the rest of my body. It was a nice feeling, one that I wasn't used to. I hoped I could feel it more often.