The Pink Party Dress
When Domenica arrived on the doorstep of Number 10 Laurel Lane, she hardly thought she would find work there. It was more an impulse - more a wish - that had drawn her up the tree-lined driveway with her carryall bag.
She was staying with relatives in an already overcrowded, tiny house on the outskirts of town and quickly overstaying her welcome, she knew. They were kind and would not say it, but there was just no room for her. Her mother believed with the innocent trust of a child that her daughter, who had been raised to speak excellent English, would find work quickly.
But so far, Domenica´s attempts to respond to advertisements had been fruitless. They had asked about her computer skills, which were non-existent. They had asked about qualifications and frowned at her school leaver´s certificate.
Desperation had brought her to the doorstep of Number 10 Laurel Lane. The grounds and the home were so beautiful and Domenica wanted to send home some of her earnings soon.
When she had rung the doorbell, she heard chimes ring distantly in rooms beyond and the door was answered by a severe-looking woman with iron grey curls and steely-brimmed glasses.
"Yes?" she said, looking at Domenica´s carryall with great suspicion.
When Domenica spoke, in her excellent English, of her need to find employment, she was told, "Wait here", and the door was shut in her face. At least it was not a "No." Domenica was hopeful.
The door opened again a while later when Domenica was shifting from foot to foot to ease the pressure of the court shoes borrowed from her cousin.
"The doctor will see you," the iron grey lady said and as Domenica walked in "You can leave that here."
"That" was the offending carryall. Domenica deposited it in the hallway. The doctor was surprisingly a woman. She was attractive, slim and spoke softly about her need for a "younger person" to help with some of the heavier housework. Domenica tried to concentrate on the duties the doctor was describing, but was overwhelmed by the luxury of her surroundings. Her eyes flickered towards heavy velvet curtains, deep-pile carpeting and polished wooden furniture.
"Do you understand?" the doctor was saying and looking at her as though she were a child. Domenica nodded. The doctor stood up. She was not dressed like a doctor in a white coat; she was wearing an elegant suit. She showed Domenica the door. "I’m sure you will be very happy here with us," she said and called for the iron grey lady, who was called Mrs. Harris.
Mrs. Harris was the housekeeper and all the way to Domenica´s new room, she talked about her responsibilities and Domenica´s tasks and how there should be no misunderstanding about the two. Domenica nodded and tried to assure Mrs. Harris with warmth in her eyes that she would do everything she was told, but was regarded with the same suspicious look. "We’ll see," Mrs. Harris said.
Domenica´s room was extremely small. It was white, with a single bed and a tiny picture of a country landscape on the wall. But it was quiet and Domenica sank down with a sigh of relief, put her head in her hands and said a prayer of thanks.
She learned very quickly that there were other members of staff in the household and that each had their specific role. Aside from Mrs. Harris, there was a gardener called Tom, a secretary called Pat and an au pair called Tanya who was responsible for the doctor’s child.
She hardly ever saw Tom or Pat unless they came in for a coffee break, but Tanya was always buzzing around with great energy. She was on a working holiday from New Zealand she told Domenica with a broad grin. She missed her family all the time, wrote copious letters and sent dozens of postcards to numerous relatives. She was tall, tanned with a brilliant white smile and so loud that Domenica could hear her coming from anywhere in the house.
But Domenica was relieved that the doctor’s son was Tanya’s responsibility. He was not what anyone in Domenica´s family would have called well-behaved. He would throw things down and say to his friends, "Don’t worry, the maid will get it." Depending on what kind of family his friends came from, they would either blush, or run away laughing.
Luckily Tanya kept the boy and his friends so busy with energetic activities or visits to places she herself wanted to see, that mostly Domenica was left alone.
Her favourite time was when all of the staff were out on their various missions - including Mrs. Harris, dispatched to the store to fetch more cleaning products - so that she could clean, polish and shine everything in the house that was not already gleaming. She found she had a talent for it - even Mrs. Harris had to grudgingly admit. And she even found herself humming as the peace and beauty of her surroundings filled her soul.
It was on one of those days that she first wandered into the doctor’s wardrobe. It was quite by accident. She thought it was another room she was meant to clean and found herself instead in a mass of dresses, coats and shoes. Never having been into any large department stores, she was totally bewildered. Not any child’s fantasy or wonderland could have conjured up the array of silks, satins, colours, textures and beauty she saw.
As she stood, paralyzed with wonder, Tanya discovered her and pulled her out. "Don’t let Mrs. H. find you in there," she warned in loud, broadly-accented tones, "This is her territory."
Tanya went on to explain that when she had arrived, the doctor had suggested that Mrs. Harris allow Tanya the responsibility of governing her wardrobe and changing over the garments from winter to summer. But Mrs. Harris had protested and guarded the garments and shoes as fiercely as a Rottweiler.
"Some things," Domenica said tentatively, "were in packets - not opened."
Tanya never condemned what she said or told her she was foolish, so she was not afraid to venture this comment.
"Oh she’s got heaps of stuff, absolutely heaps," Tanya said. "Heaps" was one of her favourite words. "Some of the stuff is never opened."
As Domenica´s eyes widened, she continued, "Have you seen Darrin’s stuff yet?"
Darrin was the doctor’s son. Domenica shook her head and Tanya pulled her by the arm. She was a very tactile girl, but it was one of the things Domenica liked about her. It was familiar.
"Take a look at this. Can you believe it," Tanya said, "All for one little boy."
Domenica was looking into what seemed like a whole world of clothing for one little boy. It was all hung on rails or packed into shelves as it would be in a department store. There were shoes and boots of all descriptions and coats and jackets of all sizes.
"Do they all fit?" Domenica ventured a hesitant question.
"Do they? Like heck!" Tanya remonstrated. "Half of the stuff Pat orders by catalogue in advance and if the doctor doesn’t like it or Darrin won’t wear it, it sits here."
Encouraged by her rapt audience, Tanya said, "You won’t believe this."
She pulled out crinkling, transparent packets revealing glimpses of beautiful fabrics.
"Sent by companies trying to impress the doctor," Tanya said, "Not knowing that her child is a boy."
With a wide grin, she pulled a garment out of one of the packets and with a flick of her wrist, revealed a beautiful, pink party dress.
Tanya laughed, "Can you imagine Darrin in this?" she said and held the dress against herself, prancing around.
Domenica laughed and held out her hand to touch the silky, pink fabric, but her stomach churned.
Once before she had felt like this. When she was at school, a child had visited with her father. The child had held fiercely to her father’s hand and with the other hand had clutched the most beautiful doll. The doll had had a china face, with beautifully painted eyes, rosy lips and delicate china fingers. It had long, soft curls and a blue silk dress, dripping with lace.
It had its own petticoats and laced black boots. It was the most beautiful doll Domenica had ever seen, and she had reached out her hand to touch it. It wasn’t a conscious thought. It was an impulse she should have controlled. But once her hand was out there, it was slapped away by the little girl and Domenica had burned in humiliation at the giggles of the other children.
"Don’t touch!" the little girl had said, "Don’t touch!"
Domenica withdrew her hand quickly from the pink, party dress.
"Will the doctor give them away?" she said, "To her family?"
"Are you kidding?" Tanya stuffed the dress unceremoniously back into its packet, "She’s probably forgotten they’re even here."
They had gone downstairs and back to their duties, but Domenica had a terrible image in her mind that she just could not erase. It was of her little sister, Angelica. Angelica was well-named, for she was like an angel. She had huge, beautiful eyes and long curls, but could not walk. She had been very ill when she was a baby and now was confined to a chair and wherever her family could carry her. It was mainly for Angelica that her mother had spent painstaking hours teaching Domenica English and pushing her to find a job that would bring extra money to her family.
Now Domenica had seen the pink, party dress and nothing could make her un-see it. All she could think of was her little sister wearing the dress and how beautiful and happy she would be. She tried to find peace in the silence of the house, polishing the wood furniture with lemon-scented oil. But she was possessed with images of the dress.
She tried praying at the small church that her relatives went to every Sunday and confessing her sins. She confessed everything she had done and everything she thought she might do. She even confessed on behalf of her co-workers.
But it was no good. When she returned to work on Monday, she took the first opportunity of being alone to revisit the dress. "If I just see it," she thought, "It will not be as beautiful as I thought."
But it was more beautiful. Carefully Domenica put the dress away, but in her mind was a single intent. At her first opportunity and with great purpose, she smuggled the dress to her room and packed it carefully into her carryall. She had persuaded herself that it was not stealing, since neither the doctor nor her son would need this dress. She was only putting something to good use. The thought of her sister’s face steered her past any feelings of guilt.
The rest of the week passed so slowly. Domenica yearned for Sunday and whenever Mrs. Harris merely looked in her direction she would flush fiercely and work harder than ever. Mrs. Harris would raise her eyebrows and say nothing.
On Saturday evening, Domenica gathered her things and headed for the door. No one expected goodbyes and usually her exit was very simple. But she should have known that day would be different. On her way out of the door, she collided with Tom - the gardener she hardly ever saw that no one could find when repairs were needed. He wanted a cup of cocoa from the kitchen.
"Sorry, my dear," he said as a middle-aged man would to a younger girl. He was helping her up.
"What is this?" Domenica could feel the anger in Mrs. Harris´ voice without having to turn around.
"I am a sinner," she thought, "My sins are heaped upon my head and glowing like coals."
The pink, party dress, still in its translucent packet was brightly evident to all in her collapsed carryall. Tanya and Darrin in mid-flight down the stairs froze to witness her humiliation. She looked up into Tanya’s eyes and saw only sympathy and sadness.
Mrs. Harris snatched up the pink party dress in its packet and grabbed Domenica´s arm. She marched her to the doctor’s study.
The doctor frowned and said, "You understand I cannot have a member of staff that I feel I cannot trust." She had looked sorrowfully at the pink, party dress and Domenica thought for one fleeting moment she would say, "I had forgotten these," but instead she said sadly, "These are very expensive dresses, Domenica. Do you understand?"
Domenica wanted to say "No," that she didn’t understand at all. But instead she nodded, feeling tears burn their way down her cheeks.
"You may regard this as termination of your employment," the doctor said, "but we won’t be pressing any criminal charges." She waved her hand and Mrs. Harris escorted Domenica out with triumphant final words, "I knew this wouldn’t work out." And slammed the door.
Domenica returned to her relatives´ home that was so overflowing with bodies she had to sleep on the sofa. That night, as she was trying to compose a letter to her mother, her aunt came in to the room.
"I’m sorry Domenica," she said, "I know things are hard and we can’t help you as we would like."
Then she handed something to her.
"This is for Angelica," she said, "It belonged to my little one. I am sorry. It is not new." She squeezed Domenica´s hand and padded quietly out of the room.
Domenica looked down to see a broderi-anglaise, cotton dress with tiny buttons down the front and lace frills. In the dim light, it was possible to see that it had once been pink.
Domenica clutched the dress to her damp face and breathed in the scent of soap and kindness. Then she got to her knees and prayed for her family.
On Monday morning, Domenica was clad again in her work-hunting outfit - a polyester suit complete with the court shoes borrowed from her cousin that were a little too small for her. Her eyes shone with a new determination and her chin lifted with a new hope. She was able to look the principal of the nearby primary school in the eye when she accepted her new job as cleaner there and promise herself - this was only the beginning.