A STUDY IN CERISE (1/7)

HER bridesmaid frock lay in wait for her when she arrived at the wedding hotel which Christina, flaunting her supermodel earnings and recent TV contract for the cosmetics giant EverGold, had hired exclusively for three days. It meant the guests were arriving in undisciplined dribs and drabs, far too early, eager to take full advantage of the free accommodation, excellent food, filchable toiletries, complementary white fluffy towelling bathrobes and ‘extensive grounds with lake, swans, boathouse and nine-hole golf course with resident professional’. Presumably the resident professional offered lessons or tips to any nine-hole golfers who might happen along. Even bearing in mind Christina’s lengthy guest list, this was overkill. It was tacky and tasteless, but Christina liked to live it large these days.

There it was, lurking behind the door with a dirty little satin (more likely polyester-satin since intended for Ursula) snigger. It was a particularly disgusting shade of cerise, too, reminding Ursula of the engorged sexual organs of female baboons when in heat. Baboons were something she happened to know about, since she worked at a zoo. ‘Always a hands-on person, Ursula,’ her father liked to say. Parents said things like that about their disappointing children. ‘He’s good at swimming and does very well on the school allotment’, or ‘She’ll probably turn out to be something creative.’

Ursula actually worked with tapirs, anteaters and capybaras but passed the baboon enclosure several times a day, often wheeling a wheelbarrow or hefting a sack of smelly, overripe fruit. Tapirs, in particular, liked fruit. Ursula knew, although she would never have been able to explain how, that her sister had picked this shade with baboons in mind – had actually gone to the zoo and researched it. Probably even took pictures on that all-singing, all dancing phone.

Christina was a bitch, of the subtle, successful kind. Were you to accuse her, she would swivel those über-blue eyes in your direction and with a sweep of those meticulously-fanned lashes smugly acknowledge her guilt whilst demonstrating to all other occupants of the room her innocence, her sweetness and your own lumpy neuroticism. I am lumpy, thought Ursula. My face is not my fortune; I have a tendency to pimples; I sweat quite noticeably when I’m hot; I am a size twenty, on a good day, but this dress is at least a twenty-four. I am lumpy and probably neurotic too.

She lifted the cerise monstrosity and held it up, still on its hanger, against her over her jodhpurs and blue shirt, which smelled of tapirs, anteaters and capybaras. She turned to look at her reflection in the mirror.

Christina stood there, smirking.

‘It rather suits you, Ursie.’

Ursula whisked round.

‘I will not wear it.’

‘You didn’t really think I was going to let you fade into the background as requested, Ursie? Some classic, long-sleeved number in ivory silk? That was just a joke. The wedding’s the day after tomorrow, anyway. Even if I decided to change it, there would be no time.’

Which was why she had kept the dress under wraps until today.

Many years of suffering had taught Ursula not to follow the many diversionary rills and streams of Christina’s covert attacks, but to stick doggedly to the point. She did not say, for instance, ‘It wasn’t a joke. You lied to me straight-faced’. Neither did she say ‘You know full well it will make me look like an inflated globe with that nominally-cinched waist forming the equator.’ Neither did she waste energy pointing out what Christina already knew, that those hugely-puffed yet dreadfully short sleeves would draw attention the swaying pads of flesh beneath her arms.

She simply said, ‘I will not wear it’ and this time knew she meant it. Something had snapped inside her and she knew that this would be her first and last stand. Whatever she had to do to make not wearing the monkey’s-bum-coloured frock happen – be it incurring the wrath of her entire extended family, running away to Scotland to live forever in a caravan or worse – and she suspected it would be worse – that was what she was going to do.

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