My aunt Lorna asked me round to help make a decision. She said she could trust me. So I went, of course I went.
She made me tea, put cool jazz on the stereo, and disappeared into her room. I tried not to pick at the laminate, scrubbed to a cracked white, on the kitchen table. A husky female voice crooned to the song. A blowfly battered against the bright window.
‘What do you think of the red one, Val?’
Lorna was posing in the doorway, arms raised awkwardly, one toe pointed at the refrigerator.
‘Very nice,’ I said, with a cautious smile.
The sequins on the dress glinted as she shuffled out a twirl, swaying to the bass line that had slunk into the room.
‘I feel like a debutante again,’ she cackled.
‘I don’t think debutantes show quite so much…’
‘You don’t like it.’
‘It’s not quite what I had in mind.’ I’d had nothing in mind, really – I didn’t want to think about it.
‘How about the one you wore to Jessie’s wedding?’ I asked finally.
‘Far too mother-of-the-bride,’ she snorted, and that started her coughing. She sat down beside me and lit a cigarette.
I poured her some tea. ‘We could sew up that slit to make it a little more modest,’ I said.
Lorna rattled her spoon against the cup. ‘Modesty is overrated,’ she said. ‘I’ve spent too damn long being modest. You know what you get for being modest? Overlooked, that’s what.’
‘I’m just not sure it’s really you that’s all.’
‘Well there’s more to me than someone’s mother and someone’s wife,’ she snapped. She looked wistful then. ‘I’d have loved to go on the stage.’
We sat without talking for a while. The fly buzzed its mad dance. The music clung to the air; to the smoke; to the words we didn’t say.
‘Val,’ she said at last, ‘I’ve decided on this one, I really have. I just want you to say something nice.’
I looked at the sagging, and the bulging, and the creases. Then I looked in her eyes, saw the hope, the defiance. ‘Aunty Lorna, you look like a star.’
And that’s how I remember her.
Only two weeks later I delivered her choice to the undertakers, along with a feather boa and a bag of make up.
In the grey of the funeral, that red dress in the casket was like a gaping wound. More than one head shook in dismay. But I stood proud with a matching boa, its feathers as red as sin.