Excerpt from 'The Curse'
Memories from a Medium's Life
From the mid nineteen seventies until the mid nineteen eighties I was lucky enough to live and work in that wonderfully elegant, vibrant and exciting city, Paris.
I just loved the time I spent there. I loved the people, I loved the language, and I loved the way of life. As a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language, which was quite a rare commodity in Paris at that time, interesting doors would frequently open for my colleagues and me, and we were invited to any number of parties, art exhibitions, restaurants, night clubs and shows on a regular basis. Life was wonderfully full and exciting.
I taught English to business people in their places of work, and spent several years teaching regularly in a number of companies. One of those was Christian Dior.
If I remember rightly the Christian Dior Boutique was in Avenue Montaigne, at street level, and many of the Dior fashion workshops and admin offices were located in the building directly above it.
I remember walking into the Boutique on my first day there carrying my books, paper and pens in a plastic supermarket carrier bag, a wildly inappropriate item to import into the sumptuous, classy environment in which I found myself!
I taught the staff who worked in the Boutique, and also several people employed in the specialised dress and hat making departments.
They were some of the nicest, kindest, most amusing people I have ever met, and they treated me as if I were a member of the Dior staff, one of the extended Dior family. I loved every minute of my time there.
One particularly warm early spring day, when Paris was beginning to look beautiful again, after months of gloom imposed on that gorgeous city by a long, cold winter of winds and rain, I arrived at the Boutique in good time for the English classes.
I still remember the wonderfully evocative, alluring fragrance that permeated the Boutique. It reminded me of a mixture of expensive perfume and clean, fresh linen, and washed gently over you the moment you stepped across the threshold, and the door closed silently behind you on the world outside. That subtle fragrance alerted the senses, and reminded and reassured you that you had entered the rarefied world of Dior haute couture.
Two of my ‘students’ were standing at the back of the Boutique that day, beside the door which led out into the hallway, and from which access could be gained to the floors above. They greeted me warmly, held the door open for me, and then followed me out into the hallway.
One of the ladies worked in the specialised dress making department, “The dress is finished,” she told me excitedly. “Everything is done.”
I knew exactly what she was talking about. Some mention had been made during every class over the last month about ‘the dress’. All the staff knew about that particular, mysterious garment, and had followed its progress eagerly on a daily basis.
It was a wedding dress, designed and created for the much loved daughter of a particularly wealthy family from the Middle East, and it was like no other dress anyone had ever seen. It was made of layer upon layer of the finest, exquisite silk, and was hand sewn with hundreds of the highest quality pearls and diamonds. It was obviously extremely valuable, and was kept under constant lock and key in the Dior building.
“We’ll show you. You must see it. It is incredible,” the ladies said now. Their enthusiasm was infectious and I grinned. “I’d love to,” I said.
“We have the keys to the back door of the workshop. If you go up the stairs here,” and they indicated the magnificent marble staircase that I was standing beside, “to the very top, we will go round and open the door there for you.” They hurried off together, two immaculately dressed and impeccably coiffed Dior ladies, down a corridor towards a small wooden door which they unlocked, opened, and then disappeared through, leaving me to begin the climb up the spiralling marble stairs alone.
A heavy hush permeated the building. There was no one else around. My high heels click clacked on the shiny cream coloured marble of the stairs, the sound echoing around the high walls and out into the spacious stairwell. Occasionally I reached out to touch the wooden surface of the black painted wrought iron bannister rail that snaked all the way up to the top beside the stairs, its ornate scrolls and rose patterns glinting as they caught the light.
It felt rather strange to be there alone, a lowly English teacher, in that lovely old building that housed some of the world’s most creative minds in the genre of fashion.
I climbed upwards, further and further, and soon my thoughts drifted far away from the Dior building, and danced fleetingly from one thing to another. Eventually I focused on the English lesson to come. I wondered how it would go, and if all the ‘students’ would be able to attend. Did I have enough photocopies of the magazine article I intended reading and discussing with them? Had I remembered to bring a few extra with me?
I rounded what I now saw was the final bend in the staircase, and started on the last stretch upwards. I watched my feet, and silently counted the steps as I went.
Aware that I was beginning to feel slightly out of breath I glanced up, checking how much further I had to go, and hoping it wasn’t too far. But suddenly I gasped in amazement and stopped where I was, jolted into immobility, with one foot in mid-air in front of me, poised to ascend the next stair.
My brain could not immediately assimilate what I saw, and for a moment I was in danger of wobbling off the step and slipping downwards. I grabbed the handrail to steady myself.
There, maybe ten or twelve stairs above me stood a beautiful young woman wearing a dress that could only have come straight out of the pages of a child’s fantasy story. It shone and shimmered, falling in soft, gleaming layers around her body, and down to her feet, as if it were permeated by small, bright Christmas lights. Surely only a Fairy Godmother would wear such a dress.
I blinked, and she was gone, that beautiful young woman with the soulful, tragic expression on her face.
I was stunned, and stood completely still, unwilling to move on, staring up towards the top of the staircase, trying to put my thoughts in order, feeling slightly dazed, and wondering what on earth I had just seen.
There was suddenly a loud jingling and metallic scraping sound from above me, and with quite a screech the door at the very top of the staircase opened.
“Come in! Come in!” my two ‘students’ called to me as they appeared round the door, smiling and beckoning.
I took a deep breath, walked quickly up the last few steps and followed them into the workshop. They closed and locked the door behind me, and then walked over to a very large window half way down the room. This was the source of natural light in the workshop, necessary to enable any hand sewing to take place.
“Here it is!” they said, rolling back a heavy bamboo screen below the window to reveal ‘the dress’ behind it, adorning a mannequin.
It was stunning, exquisite and breath-taking, and I had already seen it.
It was the same dress that the beautiful, tragic young woman had been wearing outside on the staircase just a few moments before.
“Oh how beautiful!” I said, and it truly was.
Wearing pristine cotton gloves the ladies lifted several sections of the dress and showed me how the diamonds and pearls had been sewn onto it. I was impressed. It was a totally spectacular garment, of which they were rightly proud.
I could not get the vision of that young woman on the Dior stairs, wearing the beautiful, fairy tale dress, out of my mind. For the next few days I thought of little else. I didn’t understand it. Who was the woman I had seen? Had the dress been made for her? Why did she appear to be so very sad? I just didn’t have any answers.
The following week I was working again at the Dior Boutique. The last class of the day included some of the ladies from the specialised dressmaking department, and at the end of the class, when the others had left the room, I sat chatting to the two ladies who had shown me the dress. Eventually, during a break in the conversation, I asked them if it had been collected yet, or had it been sent abroad?
There was a sudden, unaccustomed silence in the room, and the ladies exchanged glances. They seemed uncomfortable, and they shrugged their shoulders and looked down at their books and papers on the table in front of them. It was obvious that my question had touched some kind of nerve, and they didn’t seem able, or willing, to answer me.
I felt awkward, and started to collect my pens and papers together, not knowing what else to do, wondering what to say, how to escape from this embarrassing situation that I had unwittingly created.
A difficult minute passed. Eventually, “It has been destroyed,” one of the ladies said in a voice so low as to be hardly audible, “the staff were ordered to destroy the dress yesterday, and so they did.” She shook her head. She looked completely dejected.
“What!” I exclaimed, unable to keep the shock out of my voice, “Why? What on earth happened?”
“We do not know,” they said, “We think there was some kind of catastrophe, but we do not know for sure. We will probably never know. ”
I continued to teach at Dior for another two years. The dress, and the strange, sad fate that befell it, was never mentioned again.