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The old oyster-coloured satin had the most wonderful texturesmooth, but not slippery like modern imitations, stiff and reassuringly heavy. Anyone who saw the cocktail dress would just itch to touch itand that was what Alice did, letting her fingertips explore it fully, lingering on the crease of the sash as it folded into a bow just under the bustline. This wasn't just a dress. It was a piece of historya work of art.
She placed it carefully on a padded floral hanger, then hooked the hanger on a rickety clothing rail at the side of the market stall. The next item she took out of the crate was totally different but just as fabulous: a black seventies maxi skirta good labelwith velvet pile deep and soft enough to get lost in and just not care.
'We're never going to get the stall set up if you don't get a move on.'
She looked up at her best friend and soon-to-be business partner Coreen.
Today Coreen looked as if she'd stepped right out of the pages of a nineteen-fifties ad for washing machines or toasters. She wore a red and white polka-dot dress with a full skirt, her dark hair was coiled into a quiff at the front, and a bouncy ponytail swished at the back as she carefully arranged gloves, little beaded evening bags and shoes on the velvet-draped trestle table that made up the main part of Coreen's Closetvintage clothing stall par excellence.
In comparison, Alice looked positively ordinary. Like many of the other market traders, she'd gone for warmth and comfort over style. Her legs, as always, were covered in denim, and an old, battered pair of trainers graced her feet. Coreen had already made fun of the oversized bottle-greenfleece she'd stolen from one of her older brothers. Okay, so she wasn't the epitome of style, but she didn't stand out either. She was ordinary. Completely average. No point trying to kid anyone any different.
Alice sighed and looked up to find the man that everyone at Greenwich market knew only as 'Dodgy Dave' grinning at her.
'Cheer up, love. It might never happen!' he said in his usual jolly manner.
Too late. It already had. Exactly six weeks and two days ago. Not that she was going to tell Dodgy Dave all about her broken heart.
'I wasn't I was just '
She waved a hand. Ughwho cared? It was easier to play along than to explain. She beamed back at Dave, and he gave her a thumbs up sign and carried on wheeling his stash of 'antiques' to his stall.
Okay, there was one thing about her that wasn't ordinary her hair. And though that sounded as if it was a good thing, it really wasn't. Some people were kind and called it red. The more imaginative of her acquaintances had even tried to say Titian or auburn with a straight face. The fact was it was just plain ginger.
Coreen snapped her fingers in front of Alice's face, and when Alice had focused on her properly she realised Coreen was giving her one of her looks.
'You're not still mooning around over that useless Paul, are you?'
Just for a few moments she'd lost herself in the texture and colours of these wonderful old clothes, but Coreen's blunt reminder had brought her back to earth with a bump. 'We only broke up just over a month ago. A girl is allowed to lick her wounds, you know.'
Coreen just snorted. 'I can't believe you didn't dump him first, after the whole kebab incident. I would have done.'
Alice sighed, regretting the fact she'd ever told Coreen about the disastrous evening when she'd got all dressed up to go out to dinnershe'd actually worn a dressonly to discover that Paul's idea of a treat was a new computer game and a greasy doner kebab. He'd flung the paper-wrapped kebab in her direction as he'd helped her nerdy flatmates set up the games console. It had landed in her lap and left an unsightly grease stain on the brand-new dress. And he hadn't even noticed when she'd disappeared into the bathroom for twenty minutes, cross with herself for welling up over something so stupid.
At least Paul had tried. How could he have known that she'd been hoping for a romantic dinner rather than a boys' night in? She'd never complained before.
But, still .
Okay, she hadn't expected him to roll up in a limo and give her the princess treatment. But being treated like a girl for once might have been nice.
'No wonder your luck with men is so awful,' Coreen said as she pulled on a suede coat with a fur collar. 'You should have "welcome" tattooed on your stomach, because you practically lie down and invite guys to walk all over you.'
Alice didn't look at Coreen. She craned her neck to look at one of the entrances to the market. It was just short of eleven on a Thursday morningnot their busiest day of the week, but someone had to stop and browse soon, surely? Hopefully, that would take Coreen's mind off lecturing her.
'I do not invite men to walk all over me,' Alice said in a quiet but surprisingly defiant tone, well aware that Coreen would have no trouble kicking just about any man into line with her pillar-box red patent peep-toes wedges. Vintage, of course.
Coreen cocked her head to one side. Her curls bounced. 'You so do.'
It was no good. Coreen would never get it. She was vivacious and sassy with a glint in her eye and a wiggle in her walk that could stop traffic. Alice knew that for a fact, because she'd once witnessed that same wiggle cause a minor collision down Greenwich High Street. Coreen didn't know what it was like to be as interesting to men as last year's wallpaper.
And, while Paul had not been Coreen's cup of tea, Alice had thought he was lovely. A little bit too into his computer games, and not one for grand gestures, granted, but she'd really liked him. She'd even thought she might have been on the verge of falling in love with him. How stupid. All the time he'd been pining for his ex-girlfriend, and had ended up going back to her. All Alice had fallen into was moping around at home, eating chocolate and feeling rejected and foolish.
'Sometimes when you're in a relationship you have to be prepared to compromise,' she said, hoping desperately that one of the other regular stallholders would wander over for a chat now they were all set up.
No, Alice was a realist. Men weren't even going to press slightly harder on their brake pedals when she walked down the street, let alone swear undying love or promise to bring her all her dreams on a silver platter. But maybe she'd find a nice guy to settle down with eventually.
She frowned. No, 'settle' wasn't the right word. It made it seem as if she wanted to settlewhich she didn't. She still had dreams. But maybe they weren't as glitzy as the next girl's. Prince Charming could keep his castle and his fairy kingdom. Alice would be happy with an average Joe who just wanted an average Jill to share his life with.
But how did she explain all of that to quirky Coreen, who not only expected but demanded all-out devotion from the men in her life?
'Hey.' An arm came round her shoulders and she smelled Coreen's lavender perfume. 'Just don't forget that even though relationships need compromise, it shouldn't be just you doing all the compromisingokay?'
That sounded fine in theory, but no man was ever going to be bowled over by her looks. And if you didn't have looks, you needed a great personality to make a good first impression. Alice didn't think she did too badly in that department, but she was a little shy, and it took her time to relax around people she didn't know and let them get to know her properly. And not many of the guys she met were willing to sit around and hang on a girl's every word unless she had the looks. Basically it was a vicious circle Alice had no part in.
But she had discovered one weapon in her arsenal when it came to interacting with members of the opposite sex. One she'd stumbled upon quite by accident
Somewhere around her fourteenth birthday she'd discovered she'd suddenly become invisible to the male species.
They'd all been too busy being at the mercy of their hormones and drooling after girls who had more, should she say, obvious appeal. But Alice had worked out a way to be around guys. She'd become one of them. Almost.
It hadn't been hard. Somehow she'd never got the hang of doing all those unfathomable, girly things that tied teenage boys' brains in knots and drove them insane. So, while she was busy being their buddy, boys got to know her. And when the divas dumped them, they asked her out instead. It hadn't really been a grand plan. Just a pattern she'd noticed and hadn't done anything to discourage.
All her ex-boyfriends had said they liked her calm, straightforward nature. 'You're so easy to be with,' they'd said, and had laughed about how they'd raced around like headless chickens trying to live up to their previous girlfriends' whims and finally exhausted themselves.
Men didn't have to walk on eggshells around her. She could be friends with them. And friendship was a solid base for something more permanent. The 'obvious' girls might be good for the short term, but when it came to the long haul Alice knew other qualities came into play. Qualities she had in spadesloyalty, honesty, supportiveness.
She turned to look at Coreen. Okay, Paul maybe hadn't been The One after all, and it probably was time to look forward to the future, concentrate on her work instead of her love life.
'Believe me, Corrie, I'm not mooning around about anything other than these clothes.'
Coreen grinned and clapped her on the back. 'That's the spirit! But you can't daydream about every piece you hang up, you know.' She took the skirt from Alice and slung it on a hanger. And it's a good idea not to fall too much in love with the stock. Yes, it's fabulous, but when someone comes and pays cold hard cash for it I'll be waving each piece bye-bye with a smile on my face.'
Alice nodded. She knew Coreen was right. This was a businessa business she was on the verge of buying into. But falling in love with the clothes was what it was all about, surely? It couldn't hurt to just flirt with them a little, could it?
'We've got a business to run,' Coreen said, her eyes narrowing slightly.
Alice shrugged. 'Technicallyuntil we get the money together for a lease on a shopyou've got a business to run. Until then I'm not your partner. I'm just moonlighting from my "proper" job, as my dad calls it.'
Coreen made a dismissive little snort and Alice smiled. That was what she loved about her one-of-a-kind friend. Only Coreen would consider hauling second-hand clothes around the markets of south-east London a proper job, and Alice's home-grown IT consultancy a waste of time.
Actually, Alice's 'proper'job was coming in rather handy at present. Not only was she able to set her own hours, leaving her free to help Coreen out and learn the vintage clothing business, but some of the small companies she did computer troubleshooting for paid her nicely for being at their beck and call. All her spare cash was going into the start-up fund for their dreamCoreen's Closet in bricks and mortar, with a stockroom and a small office. A place where Gladys and Glynis, the two battered mannequins that Coreen had rescued from a skip, could stand in the warm and dry, safe from the danger of being toppled by blustery autumn winds.
At that moment, another gust blew through the market. Although they were in a courtyard with a corrugated roof, surrounded by small shops, Greenwich market was basically an open-air affair, and the wind still whistled through the access alleyways and pillared entrances. Alice pulled her scarf tighter around her neck, and Coreen pulled her coat around her and stamped her feet. Braving the elements was part of the life of a market trader, even if you dealt in old furs and satins, so all in all it was a very ordinary dayand Alice was totally unprepared for what happened next.
Coreen had been to an estate clearance the day before, and had brought back some truly amazing pieces, obviously hoarded by a woman whose children didn't see the designer labels she'd tucked away in the back of her wardrobe as a useful part of their legacy. Some people were like that. They could only think of vintage fashion as wearing other people's clothes, and would never see the inherent beauty of the pieces they were on the verge of throwing away or cutting up for rags.
The satin cocktail dress and the velvet skirt were only part of that haul. Alice carefully lifted a peacock-blue taffeta evening cape out of the box, and when she saw what was underneath it she froze. There they were, just sitting there the perfect pair of shoes.
She'd been on a steep learning curve about the history of fashion since she'd first met Coreen, but she knew enough to date this pair of evening sandals somewhere in the early fifties. They were the softest black suede and hardly worn. They were elegant, plainapart from a small diamanté buckle on one sidewith a slingback strap. But it was the heels that made the shoes unique. They were totally transparent. Not dull, cheap plastic, though. They were hard and solid, and reflected the light like glass.
Alice hardly dared touch them, they were so beautiful, but she picked one up gingerly and showed it to Coreen.
Her friend nodded in agreement. 'Fabulous, aren't they? I swear, if I was a smaller size, I'd have swiped them for myself.'
Alice peeked at the label. 'But they say they're a five and a halfyou're only a smidge bigger than that. Are you sure you don't want them?'
Coreen shook her head. American sizing. That's a size four to you and me.'
Size four? Really?
That was it, then. This was destiny.
They were the sort of thing a twenty-eight-year-old should be wearing on a regular basisnot canvas sneakers and the big, clumpy things that made Coreen tut.
'They're mine,' she whispered.
Coreen was looking at her again, this time with an understanding light in her eyes.
'How much?' Alice asked.
The ponytail bounced violently as Coreen shook her head. 'I only paid fifty quid for the whole box, and I can sell the rest of the contents for five times that. You have them.'
Coreen winked. 'Really. I know that look. That's the look of a girl who's fallen completely in love and is never going to fall out again. Go ontry them on.'