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Ada peered into the broken mirror propped up on the kitchen dresser. Mouth open, tongue to attention, she plucked at her eyebrows with a pair of rusty tweezers. Winced and ouched until only a thin arc was left. She dabbed on the witch hazel, hoped the stinging would fade. Dunked her hair in clean, warm water in the old, cracked butler sink, patted it dry with a towel, and parted it along the left. Eighteen years old, more grown up this way. Middle finger, comb and straighten, index finger, crimp. Three waves down the left, five down the right, five each herringbone down the back, pin curls and a kirby grip tight to her skull, leave it to dry.
Ada was taking her time. She opened her handbag and fished around until she found her powder, rouge, and lipstick. Not too much, in case she looked common, but enough to make her fresh and wholesome like those young girls from the Women’s League of Health and Beauty. She’d seen them in Hyde Park in their black drawers and white blouses and knew they practiced on a Saturday afternoon in the playground of Henry Fawcett’s. She might think about joining them. It was good to be supple, and slender. She could make the uniform herself. After all, she was a dressmaker now, earned good money.
She rubbed her lips together to spread her lipstick, checked that the waves were holding their grip as her hair dried, picked up the mirror and carried it into the bedroom. The brown houndstooth skirt with the inverted pleats and the cream blouse with the enamel pin at the neck--that was smart. Good tweed, too, an offcut from Isidore, the tailor in Hanover Square. Just fifteen she was when she’d started there. Gawd, she was green, picking up pins from the floor and sweeping away fabric dustings, plimsolls gray from the chalk and her hand-me-down jacket too long in the arm. Dad said it was a sweatshop, that the fat capitalist who ran it did nothing but exploit her and she should stand up for her rights and organize. But Isidore had opened her eyes. He taught her how fabric lived and breathed, how it had a personality and moods. Silk, he said, was stubborn, lawn sullen. Worsted was tough, flannel lazy. He taught her how to cut the cloth so it didn’t pucker and bruise, about biases and selvages. He showed her how to make patterns and where to chalk and tack. He taught her the sewing machine, about yarns and threads, how to fit a newfangled zipper so it lay hidden in the seam and how to buttonhole and hem. Herringbone, Ada, herringbone. Women looking like mannequins. It was a world of enchantment. Beautiful hair and glistening gowns. Tailored knickers even. Isidore had shown Ada that world, and she wanted it for herself.
She wasn’t there yet. What with Mum demanding a share for her keep and the bus to work and a tea cake in Lyons with the girls on payday, there wasn’t much over at the end of the week.
“And don’t think you can come into this house and lord it around,” Mum raised a stained finger at Ada, knuckles creased like an old worm, “just because you pay your way.” Still had to do her share of the dusting and sweeping and, now she was trained up, the family’s dressmaking, too.
Ada knew this life of scrimping and nit combs and hand-me-downs was not what she was meant for. She damped her finger and thumb with her tongue, folded down her Bemberg stockings with the fitted toe and heel, and rolled them up, crease by crease, careful you don’t snag, so the seam sat straight at the back. Quality shows. Appearances matter. So long as her top clothes looked good, nobody could touch her. Lips pinched, nose in the air, excuse me. Airs and graces, like the best of them. Ada would go far, she knew, be a somebody too.
She propped the mirror on top of the mantelpiece and combed her hair so it settled in chestnut waves. She placed her hat, a brown felt pillbox that one of the milliners at work had made for her, on her head, nudging it forward and to the side. She slipped her feet into her new tan court shoes and, lifting the mirror and tilting it downwards, stood back to see the effect. Perfect. Modish. Groomed.
Ada Vaughan jumped over the threshold, still damp from the scrubbing and reddening this morning. The morning sky above was thick, chimney pots coughing sooty grouts into the air. The terrace stretched the length of the street, smuts clinging to the yellow stock and to the brown net curtains struggling free from the open windows in the city-hobbled wind. She covered her nose with her hand so the murk from the Thames and the ash from the tallow melts wouldn’t fill her nostrils and leave blackened snot on the handkerchiefs she’d made for herself and embroidered in the corner, AV.
Clip-clop along Theed Street, front doors open so you could see inside, respectable houses these, clean as a whistle, good address, you had to be a somebody to rent here, Mum always said. Somebody, my foot. Mum and Dad wouldn’t know a somebody if he clipped them round the ear. Somebodies didn’t sell the Daily Worker outside Dalton’s on a Saturday morning, or thumb their rosaries until their fingers grew calluses. Somebodies didn’t scream at each other, or sulk in silence for days on end. If Ada had to choose between her mother and father, it would be her father every time, for all his temper and frustrations. He wasn’t waiting for Heaven but salvation in the here and now, one last push and the edifice of prejudice and privilege would crumble and everyone would have the world that Ada yearned for. Her mother’s salvation came after death and a lifetime of suffering and bleeding hearts. Sitting in the church on Sunday, she wondered how anyone could make a religion out of misery.
Clip-clop past the fire station and the emergency sandbags stacked outside. Past the Old Vic, where she’d seen Twelfth Night on a free seat when she was eleven years old, entranced by the glossy velvet costumes and the smell of tungsten spotlights and orange peel. She knew, just knew, there was a world enclosed on this stage with its painted-on scenery and artificial lights that was as true and deep as the universe itself. Makeup and make-believe, her heart sang for Malvolio, for he, like her, yearned to be a somebody. She kept going, down the London Road, round St. George’s Circus, and onto the Borough Road. Dad said there was going to be a war before the year was out, and Mum kept picking up leaflets and reading them out loud: When you hear the siren, proceed in an orderly fashion . . .
Ada clip-clopped up to the building and raised her eyes to the letters that ran in black relief along the top. borough polytechnic institute. She fidgeted with her hat, opened and shut her bag, checked her seams were straight, and walked up the stairs. She was sticky under her arms and between her thighs, the clamminess that came from nerves, not the clean damp you got from running.
The door to Room 35 had four glass panels in the top half. Ada peered through. The desks had been pushed to one side, and six women were standing in a semicircle in the middle. Their backs were to the door, and they were looking at someone in the front. Ada couldn’t see who. She wiped her palm down the side of her skirt, opened the door, and stepped into the room.
A woman with large bosoms, a pearl necklace, and gray hair rolled in a bun stepped forward from the semicircle and threw open her arms. “And you are?”
Ada swallowed. “Ada Vaughan.”
“From the diaphragm,” the woman bellowed. “Your name?”
Ada didn’t know what she meant. “Ada Vaughan.” Her voice crashed against her tongue.
“Are we a mouse?” the woman boomed.
Ada blushed. She felt small, stupid. She turned and walked to the door.
“No, no,” the woman cried. “Do come in.” Ada was reaching for the doorknob, but the woman put her hand on Ada’s. “You’ve come this far.”
The woman’s hand was warm and dry, and Ada saw her nails were manicured and painted pink. The woman led her back to the others, positioned her in the center of the semicircle.
“My name is Miss Skinner.” Her words sang clear, like a melody, Ada thought, or a crystal dove. “And yours?”
Miss Skinner stood straight, all bosom, though her waist was slender. She poised her head to the side, chin forward.
“Say it clearly.” She smiled, nodded. Her face was kindly, after all, even if her voice was strict. “E-nun-ci-ate.”
“Ada Vaughan,” Ada said, with conviction.
“You may look like a swan,” Miss Skinner said, stepping back, “but if you talk like a sparrow, who will take you seriously? Welcome, Miss Vaughan.”
Miss Skinner placed her hands round her waist. Ada knew she must be wearing a girdle. No woman her age had a figure like that without support. She breathed in Mmmmm, drummed her fingers on the cavity she made beneath her ribs, opened her mouth, Do re mi fa so. She held tight to the last note, blasting like a ship’s funnel until it left only an echo lingering in the air. Her shoulders relaxed, and she let out the rest of the air with a whoosh. It’s her bosoms, Ada thought, that’s where she must keep the air, blow them up like balloons. No one could breathe in that deep. It wasn’t natural.