Kara had watched the old man walk around the shop for a few minutes before approaching him. It was a small boutique and there wasn’t room to hide; it made it a bad place for shoplifters but a tricky place for shy customers. But her manager was in town and Sara was off sick. Therefore, backroom staff got bumped to sales assistant.
“Can I help you sir?" She said, in her best imitation Sara voice. Kara had watched with admiration as her friend worked people in the past; being a friend to the women, a flirt to the men. It was a gift that Kara, hearing her stiff, slightly strangled voice now, knew she had yet to master.
“I was wondering if you could help me," the man said. She put him at about fifty five; his voice was quiet but had that trace of authority that Kara marked down as a teacher.
“Of course, sir. What can I help you with?" Kara sighed inwardly; she still couldn’t get the supermarket twang out of her tone. The man smiled gently and it relaxed her; she could almost place him from somewhere but not quite. It took her a further moment to realise how terribly sad his smile was.
“I was wondering . . . my daughter . . . ." His voice faltered a little as he held up the scarf. She carefully took it from him, as if it were hot and looked it over.
“I think it’s a good choice, sir. Does your daughter have light hair or dark?" She remembered the questions she was supposed to ask; written on cue cards and remembered over lunch breaks. But looking at the man, his sad eyes, she didn’t feel this was staged. He cleared his throat.
“Dark like yours, eyes the same too." His voice settled and she thought it was sweet the way he seemed to calm when he talked about his family. There were the men who came in to buy and there were those who came to window-shop. Awkwardly, he took the scarf back from her and half-held it out before her. There was nothing sexual about the way he did it but she noticed he seemed to look at her in as if he was almost . . . scared. No, not scared; haunted.
“That would be good . . . thank you." He lifted it up and shook it, almost like it was a prize and blushed immediately, clearly feeling foolish.
“Is there anything else you’d like?" Kara asked, taking the scarf and folding it neatly back into a square.
“Yes, I’m afraid there is. A suit . . . " his voice trailed off. Kara looked at him, even as his head lolled forward; 'Afraid?’
“Sir, I’ m not quite sure I understand . . . ," she let her words trail off, giving him the chance to fill in the gaps. She watched as he brought his head up and pinched the bridge of his nose roughly.
“I’m Jim Rose. My name is Jim Rose," he said, his voice trembling. “It was my daughter.. . ," it was his turn to fade away. Kara immediately drew her hands up to her face.
“Oh god, you’re -- " she started to say and then forced herself to stop. She had read the papers. Without thinking, she put her hand over onto his shoulder. Kara watched as he began to bring his hand up to pat hers and then stopped himself. He looked back over to her, and opened his eyes wide, the way people did when they were trying to clear the blur of tears away.
“I’d promised her a work-suit, for her interviews, you see" his voice was steady, but on the verge of breaking up; he sounded like a weak radio broadcast. “I made that promise." His hand balled into a fist and she saw the faded scars and fresh scabs on his knuckles.
“I can get one for you. We can pick one out, okay?" Kara said, surprised that her voice was stronger now than at any other point. He nodded gratefully and she steered him over to the suits, her hand still resting on his shoulder. She was aware she was guiding him almost and felt oddly light at the idea of controlling the heavy-set man. The rail was full of different shades of grey, black, filtering down to cream at the far end.
“She said she wanted black," he said, his voice more forceful now. “Not pin-stripe, but sheer black. That’s how she described it to me; -- sheer black." He looked away from the rack and into his shirt pocket. He handed over a scrap of paper; it was warm and Kara wondered how long it had been in his shirt, close to his heart. She wondered if he slept with it pressed against him.
“Her measurements," he said and waved his hands, the way men did when greeted with something totally alien and utterly feminine. She looked the numbers over and looked up to the rack. As she went through the items, the cool sliding sound of the coat hangers between them, she imagined the girl in her mind’s eye; all she had seen was a head shot in the papers. She had been a slim girl, Kara now knew, as well as pretty.
“I think this one would be perfect," Kara said and handed it over to the man. As she did, a perfectly shaped question of terror bubbled in her head; is this what he’s going to bury her in? She felt herself pale and was relieved he was momentarily distracted by the clothes. Well, why not? Another, slightly angry and self-righteous voice snapped; what would you choose?
“I think that would be fine," he said and Kara recognised the familiar trail of doubt in his voice that went with most male shoppers buying for a woman. Except this one was leaden, weighed down with so much more than just inconvenience. She understood this had become somehow important to him, this part of his life.
“I’m just not sure . . . it’s so hard to imagine . . . ,"he wafted the suit around, as if the sorrow he felt was actually around him now, like a mist. Kara cleared her throat, hoping her own paleness had subsided a little.
“It fits all the measurements, the numbers," she said, knowing she should have added 'sir’ but feeling it was somehow not right.
“Could you wear it?" he said suddenly, holding the suit out to her, as if he was returning it in a hurry. Kara saw his cheeks flush furiously and knew hers were doing the same.
“Mister . . . ," she struggled to say, not quite being able to say his name. “Mister, I can’t try on you daughter’s clothes." She heard what she had said and knew it had not sounded right; not rude, not quite, but frightened. That, she suddenly understood, was at the heart of it. His face, still red, reached for his wallet.
“I could give you more money," he said quietly. “More money than the suit is . . . ," he went on. Kara looked down at the same time the man did, as if they were both looking for the same thing on the floor. Kara drew up her head first, suddenly aware of how pitiful this all was; two shame faced people huddled into a corner of an empty shop whispering half- formed sentences. Outside, people walked on oblivious; no-one cared and that was the truth of it. She took the hanger from his hand; his knuckles were white and for a moment she wasn’t sure if he was going to let go of it. After another second, he understood what was happening and let it slip carefully from his hand.
Kara slipped it on delicately, as if there was some part of the other girl on the fabric; she knew that was ridiculous, but she had seen the way the man had gripped it. Kara adjusted it the best she could, slipping her own shoes back on. She looked at herself in the mirror and smoothed and patted down. For a second she closed her eyes tight, tight enough to see white stars amongst the black and when she opened them back up she tried to see the other girl’s face where her own sat. The dead girl’s face, that part of her snapped again. She blinked and took a breath, then stepped out from the changing room.
He froze when she stood before her and she wondered what he was going to do next. The man stood still, but a trembling ran through him, so that he began to rock on the balls of his feet. Kara began to move but something inside her told her to stop; there was a battle, a terrible war, going on in his face, she understood. A part of him was almost happy but there was another, broken part of him that turned his face red, his eyes wet. He rocked one final time, as if to come forward and then stopped.
“Thank you," the man said and then looked away. Kara didn’t reply, but instead turned back to the dressing room. She might have seen him mouth his daughter’s name just after he’d said 'thank you’, as if finishing the sentence, but she wasn’t certain.
In the changing room, Kara looked at herself in the mirror. She drew up her hands, obscuring her face. My name is Ellen Rose, she whispered. A wave of heat rode over her; she tried to find different dreams, the men she needed, songs that made her smile. Kara felt her heart drum as she tried to summon these things up. When she failed, she felt it start to settle down; for a moment, she imagined she felt it slowing down to nothing and settling still in its cradle; a last breath and then no more at all, ever. Kara brought her hands away from her face and began to undo the clothes; after a few seconds she began to pull at them until they almost tore.
The man paid and as he fumbled for the extra money, Kara put her hand up gently and he jammed it back down into his wallet. The two of them exchanged a few words but it had slipped away, whatever it was. He quickly left for the door and didn’t look back when he stepped outside, though she thought he would. Instead, he simply disappeared into the maze of shoppers, gone.
The shop stilled and Kara poured herself more coffee. She felt strange in her own clothes and when she poured the coffee from the pot, it spilled. Kara drew her hands up and was surprised to seem them shaking. She clasped them together, something her mother had done and sworn she’ d never imitate. Kara wrung them and wondered if she looked tired like her mother had done then. She only stopped when the tears started, running gently along her cheeks, all of it played out soundlessly, amongst the shadows of the empty shop.