The Dressmaker A Novel
By Oberbeck, Elizabeth Birkelund
Picador Copyright © 2007 Oberbeck, Elizabeth Birkelund
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780312426927
Blossoms fluttered everywhere that morning outside the dressmaker’s studio. They cascaded from above, settling at the base of the century-old apple tree like a pool of white satin at the hem of a wedding gown. Wedding gowns. Claude Reynaud had designed and sewn hundreds of them, but still, he thought, as he stitched on a lacy trim, they made him uneasy: the symbolism of the white dress, the secrecy of the veil, the surprise of the bride’s sudden appearance before the slow, irrevocable procession down the aisle. . . .
A fresh breeze from the wide-open window interrupted his thoughts. Drawing in the scent of apple blossoms, Claude studied the gnarly trunked tree that his great-grandfather had planted a century ago. The sap ran through this tree’s branches as surely as blood pulsed through his own body and those of the generations of gentle Reynauds before him, traditional dressmakers all.
But times were changing, as was Claude’s clientele. Thanks to a favorable article in a widely read French national newspaper and several devoted clients, Monsieur Reynaud’s talent had begun to attract sophisticated Parisiennes willing to drive forty minutes out of Paris to be “fitted.” They broke the speed limit as they entered the humble town of Senlis, situated twenty-nine miles north of Paris as the crowflies, on the rue Vieille de Paris, an ancient thoroughfare for textile merchants traveling from Paris to Flanders.
Claude Reynaud and his assistant, Antoine Boudin, often called Vite Boudin—fast Boudin—by Parisians who preferred speed over all else, produced a dress, suit, or gown every three to four days. Now that it was early spring, wedding-dress season was in full swing.
As he sipped his café crème and broke the brioche that his sister had dropped off that morning on her way to work, Claude reviewed his appointments for the day.
“Pédant,” he said, peering into the blinking green eyes of his tall, full-feathered blue-and-golden-fronted parrot, “we have a new client today. A Mademoiselle de Verlay. Referred by Madame de Champy. A July wedding.”
He reread the note scrawled next to Mademoiselle de Verlay’s name. The bride-to-be had given her dressmaker total freedom over the gown’s design. Claude had never been awarded such trust for a bridal dress. Most affianced young women arrived at his studio clutching wrinkled magazine photographs of brides, convinced their childhood dreams of a fairy-tale wedding would be fulfilled to the last detail.
A bird, he could not tell what kind, suddenly crashed into the closed upper portion of the window. When Claude looked up, he noticed that the wind had died down momentarily and the apple tree’s white gown of blossoms was complete.
Eleven a.m: a barely audible knock at the door. Despite the gentleness of the intrusion, Claude jumped. A woman entered, the wind urging her in from behind.
“Bonjour?” the voice called, out of the dark vestibule into the sunlit room.
Claude extended his hand. Long tapered fingers outstretched, a small face emerging out of a dark scarf, large smiling eyes, a pointed chin—these were Claude’s first impressions of his new client.
“Bonjour. I’m Valentine de Verlay. Pleased to meet you.” The words caught her breath in them; hers was a lovely, rich, windy voice.
Claude took her lightweight camel coat to the closet, noting as he did the dark brown sheath of hair resting just below her shoulders, the almond-shaped eyes, the smile on the corners of her lips. She strode into his studio with composed confidence, her head high. He scrutinized her attire: navy wool pants, wide-ribbed cappuccino cotton cardigan with sleeves that skimmed the knuckles of her hands, and another dark beige sweater, this one cashmere, tied around her neck. Simply elegant.
“Thank you for agreeing to design my wedding dress,” she said. She looked directly at him; then, as if the gaze were too intense, she lowered her eyes, her face suddently veiled under a blanket of shyness. “Charlotte says you are very busy, but she insisted I ask for you.”
“Bonjour! Bonjour!” Pédant’s words caught her attention.
“How delightful,” she said, now at the parrot’s side and smiling. “I love birds, but I’m not familiar with ones that speak. Bonjour to you!” She gently touched a blue feathered wing.
The front door slammed loudly and Antoine barged into the room. “Whom do we have here this morning? Antoine Boudin at your service,” he said, taking the mademoiselle’s hand in his own and bending in half to kiss it. “Shall I start pinning up?”
Claude had not prepared himself for Antoine. He wanted to experience his new client without interruption, to grasp her coloring, skin texture, shape, and personality.
Antoine Boudin had worked for him for two years, but Claude still felt the occasional urge to defend himself against the onslaught of Antoine’s full-throttled chest, wide domed forehead, and penetrating brown eyes. In his assistant’s presence, Claude felt small, like a shell-less escargot ready for eating. Claude imagined Antoine relishing the briny taste as he whipped the morsel around in his mouth.
As Antoine entreated the new client to accept a glass of water after the “arduous journey from Paris,” Claude’s eye lingered on the tilt in the long arc of her neck, her half smile.
“My notes indicate that you have no ideas, no preferences for this dress, mademoiselle. Is that correct?” asked Claude. Pédant made scratching sounds. Claude wished he had placed the distracting bird in the other room.
“Mon Dieu, Claude,” said Antoine, “why do you ask? Isn’t it obvious? Can’t you see her in a champagne satin gown with a robust bustle at the back? The bustle should have a long train, which would trail like a river down the church aisle.” Antoine stretched out his arms and waved them to create the effect of a flowing river.
“Did you have any dress in mind?” Claude redirected the question to the woman.
Mademoiselle de Verlay paused before turning to face Claude. “I was told that you, Monsieur Reynaud, would choose a design that would suit me.”
The spurned Antoine frowned and headed to his small sewing room.
Claude asked Mademoiselle de Verlay to step onto the platform that his grandfather had built a century ago, now a warped dark wood. She unwrapped the sweater she wore around her neck and took off her cardigan to reveal a white T-shirt: an unraveling. Within moments, Claude had memorized her measurements: square shoulders, small bust, wider curve at the hip, very long neck.
Delicately, Claude eased his worn yellow measuring tape along her neck, waist, arm length, leg, and torso. Unlike his father, who recorded every detail of a person’s size, Claude kept no client files. He never forgot a body. His photographic mind easily memorized the distances between wrist and collarbone, hip and hip, ankle and waist. He used the measuring tape as a distraction while he absorbed skin, hair texture, color, and the way his client moved.
His greatest talent—and what he was becoming renowned for beyond the small town of Senlis—was his ability to match a client’s natural colors with enhancing hues and textures. He obsessed over color classifications and names. Inadequate descriptions frustrated him to the point of fury. He would yell across his studio to Pédant, “That is not the color pink! Non! That is the color of dawn reflected on the yellowing marble steps of the Trevi Fountain.”
A beam of sunlight caught his client now—and the edge of his black work coat, upon which he noticed white dust. He thought of brushing it off but was afraid she would notice. She was squinting.
“There’s too much glare in here,” he said. “Shall I close a shutter?”
“No, please! Never too bright. I could sit in the sun all day.”
“Mademoiselle may be fascinated to know that our dressmaker is the sole surviving practitioner of the ancient art of the measuring tape,” yelled Antoine from the kitchen, where he was refilling his coffee cup. “In Paris, major design companies are using computers to record measurements in a matter of a few minutes. But our Claude, here, he swears by the ‘touch’ you get with a measuring tape.”
Claude heard his assistant but refused to listen to him. He sensed the growing warmth of his client in the direct sunlight and noticed that his fingertips were moist with perspiration.
“I think I have it.” He caught a glimpse of her smiling in the mirror at him. He stood up and rewound the tape into a tight circle. “I envision you in a white sleeveless tunic. A column of white to the floor, but not touching it, to accentuate your height, and white silk tulle, fluffy white tulle coming off the waist, flowing to the back of the dress, loosely floating into a pool of white at the back. No cream! Blanche, only the whitest of white. No thick veil, only a chignon, with a thin layer of tulle falling from a pearl comb and joining the pool on the floor. I must think more about the neckline.” He paused, looking out the window at the apple tree for answers, then back at Mademoiselle de Verlay. “It should be a bateau neckline, straight across the shoulders: no curves.”
“The veil! You must let me do the veil, Claude. I know the veil!” insisted Antoine, who now stood alarmingly close to their client. “The veil should be thin, as I said before, not tulle—non, non, too froufrou—but silk!”
Mademoiselle de Verlay’s calm face changed color. Was it Antoine’s proximity? Perhaps she was dismayed by the suggestion of a silk veil. Claude felt his own face redden. He tried to place the color of her eyes. Cornflower blue? No, the blue of the seaside in Brittany, when a cloud obscures the sun, but brighter still. No, blueberries, a bowl of summertime’s dark blues in a white porcelain bowl.
Was it the mademoiselle’s quietness that unsettled him? It wasn’t that she was shy: some secret, some joke, a memory of something amusing lurked behind her smile. He studied her face as she gazed out the window: the eyelashes that turned up at the corners; the dark-brown straight hair curving around the shining pale face, its pointed chin like the period at the bottom of an exclamation mark. Most of all, he was taken by her eyes; they asked him to speak to her. Claude scolded himself back to the task at hand.
“Antoine,” he said, “please entertain our client while I work up a preliminary sketch. Only a few minutes, mademoiselle.”
“Mais bien sûr!” exclaimed Antoine. “But you see, Claude, a computer would have produced the prelims for you.” He offered Mademoiselle de Verlay a chair as he perched on the stool near her. “Claude.” He sighed. “One day, he’ll wake up to realize he’s living in another century! I don’t think I’m willing to wait for the alarm to go off!”
Only a short distance away, seated at the kitchen table with pencil and paper in hand, Claude listened attentively to Antoine’s small talk.
“Where do you get that glow, mademoiselle? Surely not out of a bottle? You could light a dark seabed with a face as pearly white as yours. No, pearls do not do it justice. Only the moon . . .” Antoine moved in closer, his talk dimming to a whisper. “A waist like this! It is rare to witness a waist like this, so much curve. . . .”
Antoine was an accomplished flirt. He fine-tuned his smooth talk at every opportunity. Claude never gave Antoine’s patter much thought; it had never seemed to offend his clients. Indeed, some confided to him, giggling, that they drove the forty minutes expressly to hear his assistant’s sweet nothings.
But this morning, as the sun polished the tip of Mademoiselle de Verlay’s earlobe, Claude felt oddly protective of her. She did not react, smiling or rejecting. Her face was quiet and composed. Had the edge of her lip lifted slightly?
“Monsieur Boudin, laisse-la tranquille! Enough, please.” Claude glared at Antoine before offering Mademoiselle de Verlay a cup of coffee and the extra brioche from his sister.
“Non, merci, but I would love to see the drawing.” She was standing close to Claude’s shoulder.
“Mademoiselle, this is a rough sketch,” he said firmly, trying to conceal his nervousness. “I will fax you the final sketches on Friday for your approval.”
“Merci,” she said, walking toward the door.
Antoine blocked her passage. He held her coat aloft. “Mademoiselle, allow me to escort you to your car.”
“No, thank you,” she said quickly, dipping her arms into the sleeves. “I can find my own way.”
As if she had forgotten something, she turned and darted back into the room past Antoine and held her slender hand out to Claude.
“Enchantée, monsieur. Such a pleasure to meet you.” She smiled and flung up her scarf in one motion. As she left, Claude envisioned a train of white silk tulle in her wake.
That afternoon the sky was so gray and low, Claude felt he could reach up and pull it down like a shade. Sketching Valentine de Verlay’s tunic wedding dress only accentuated his sense of melancholy. Bouts of despondency were not unfamiliar to him. Sometimes, the dip lasted an hour, sometimes two days, occasionally several months. He usually managed to escape by focusing on his work. But today, designing yet another bridal gown prompted Claude to reflect on his own wedding: a mistake.
His marriage to Rose-Marie had not begun so well and had not ended so well. What was in the middle was also not so well. The beginning was his car accident en route to the church, when he had lurched into reverse instead of first gear and bumped the car behind him. The incident, with its usual fanfare of police and information gathering and one bent fender, delayed the ceremony by an hour. When he caught sight of her face between the white marble columns lining the interior of Notre-Dame de Senlis, Rose-Marie wore a red-lipped pout. Her brown eyes burned. “Comment? How could you have?”
The words stained even the earliest days of his marriage. He saw in her a cozy future of loving domesticity. She saw in him talent and escape from small-town life. It took only a few months to realize that the disappointment was mutual. On their first anniversary, Claude rejected an offer to work at a major couturier in Paris despite Rose-Marie’s pleas to take the job.
“But this is the chance of your life! You have no choice!” The words were to become Rose-Marie’s familiar refrain.
She had left him eight years ago. In their five years of marriage, they had had no children. She told him she was grateful for his talent and the clothes he had made for her, but she had grown tired of his ways and wanted to see the world. Her farewell complete, she squeezed through the narrow front vestibule, her two bulging brown suitcases banging at her heels. In all that time, he had not received so much as a word from her—not even legal documents asking for a divorce, which puzzled him, still.
With the next cool spring breeze through his window, Claude dropped the memory. Like a connoisseur, he sifted through the endless variations of apple-blossom scents delivered by the ever-changing breezes. Claude depended and thrived on the predictable rhythms of daily life. With a scientist’s keen eye for detail, he observed the sun’s daily patterns on the white-duck-clothed mannequin at the center of his studio. Every afternoon at four-thirty, he looked forward to the clanging of bells from the lycée across the street, signaling the end of the school day and the burst of children’s voices on the worn white marble school steps.
He glanced at his watch after the second knell. Any moment now, his nephews would pour unannounced into his quiet abode and bombard him with hugs and demands for pastries and a puppet show. As if on cue, he heard them clamoring at the door.
Pell-mell, in the four boys thronged, romping around the few small rooms, throwing pillows from the bed in a domesticated form of rugby, fiddling with the hands of the grandfather clock, gobbling down éclairs au chocolat and spinning the mannequin at the center of the studio, sending pins flying. The older boys, Henri and Jean-Hugues, professed themselves too grown-up for the show performed by their uncle Reynaud’s hand-sewn puppets, but they watched anyway, glued to the action, until it was homework time and home-going time and they once again crammed out the old oak door, four at once, one on top of the other, schoolbags bursting out last.
Claude returned the puppets to their silk satchel behind the closet door, brewed a fresh cup of coffee, and tightened the belt on his work coat. This was the daily prelude to his evening work, when he found himself most productive. In the evening quiet after the bustle of morning sittings, appointments, and phone calls, the mannequin drew him to it like a magnet. Armored with thimbles, a pale green pincushion attached to his belt, his faded yellow tape measure around his neck, he pinned and unpinned the dark blue velvet, spinning the mannequin with each touch. He squinted to catch the overall effect as the mannequin whirled in a pinwheel of midnight blue. Pédant shook his feathers and squawked. Claude smoothed the mannequin’s shapely sides and paused, carefully scrutinizing his velvet creation. As the grandfather clock chimed 9 p.m., Claude declared his work finished. Stealing one last look at the mannequin in the mirror, he caught his own reflection. What a long nose he had, his mother’s; intense dark eyes, his father’s; wide cheekbones, whose? Smallish round lips, like his sister Juliette’s. He touched the dark hair at his forehead, which had begun to thin and recede evenly on either side. He grabbed a handful of it at the back, still a good thick crop.
He returned his attention to the mannequin. As he touched the fabric, his gaze softened. Pédant twitched, fluffing feathered wings before nestling his beak once again into cushioned plumage. The dressmaker paused in the velvety richness of the darkening, noiseless moment. Then, he switched on the overhead light and reached into the pantry closet for a handful of potatoes for dinner.
Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck. All rights reserved. Continues...
Excerpted from The Dressmaker by Oberbeck, Elizabeth Birkelund Copyright © 2007 by Oberbeck, Elizabeth Birkelund. Excerpted by permission.
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