Throughout the nineteenth century, clothing, along with other physical data, was pivotal to both crime solving and crime fiction.
Many famous cases rested on the discovery of cloth clues; in 1849, the infamous Bermondsey murderess Maria Manning was captured by way of a bloodstained dress she had stashed in a railway station locker. While everyday material ‘evidence’ was embraced by authors who made items of clothing and hair central to their detective storylines. In Wilkie Collins’s popular tale, The Diary of Anne Rodway (1856) a murderer is brought to justice via the discovery of the missing end of a torn cravat.
Drawing on this complicity between clothing, fashion, crime and mystery in the nineteenth century, Fashion Detective invited four of Australia’s leading crime fiction writers to create new short fictions based upon the works on display. Introducing character and context to the exhibited garments, each writer was asked to select an object as the inspiration for a short story.
Award-winning YA author Lili Wilkinson wrote this story Paper Piecing.
Paper Piecing by Lili Wilkinson
Excuse me? Is anyone home?’
The cottage is small and cramped and smells of mildew. A few coals glow in the hearth. Kitty removes her bonnet and shakes the rain from it. Curls cling to her cheeks like clammy weeds. She shivers and moves closer to the fire, where two ancient armchairs crouch on the hearth.
For a moment Kitty thinks she’s alone, but something moves in the shadows and she sees the old woman, sitting in one of the armchairs. Gnarled and twisted like an old branch, the woman might have been sitting there forever. It’s impossible to tell where the armchair ends and where the woman begins. Milky eyes blink. Paper-dry skin sinks into a toothless mouth. The only signs of life are the faltering movements of her twisted fingers, fumbling and catching as she pushes an ancient needle through scraps of fabric and newspaper, snipped carefully into tiny diamond shapes.
‘I’m so sorry’, says Kitty, taking a step backwards. ‘I didn’t realise anyone was home. I got caught in the rain, you see …’
The old woman’s claw-like fingers grope and clutch at the needle and thread. Her breathing is ragged, with a deep, chesty whistle. Kitty glances around at the dark corners of the cottage and sees decades of dust and dry leaves.
‘I didn’t know someone lived up here’, she says.
Kitty wonders if Ruth ever came to this place, if she ever met this woman. Maybe this woman was the last person to see Ruth alive? Looks like it has been a long while since the old woman has seen anything, but still …
‘She was my cousin’, says Kitty, stepping towards the woman as she fumbles in her reticule. The newspaper clipping is a little damp from the rain. Kitty slides it into the old woman’s hands, the black ink headline shrieking familiar words:
SEARCH FAILS TO RECOVER MISSING GIRL
The woman’s fingers brush over the newsprint and slowly, creakily, she pushes the paper into her basket, where it joins the diamond-shaped scraps.
‘I’m sorry’, says Kitty. ‘I really didn’t mean to disturb you. I just … they never found her, you see. And I just can’t help wondering.’
The rain pounds on the roof of the little cottage. Kitty shivers. She doesn’t want to go back out there. She looks around for a coal scuttle or a woodpile to build the fire up, but there is nothing. She holds out her hands to the few dying embers. Her wet clothes are sticking to her skin. She glances at the old woman.
‘Do you even know I’m here?’ asks Kitty, half to herself.
The old woman laboriously pulls the needle and thread through a tiny scrap of blue cloth. It is sky blue. Ruth used to wear a hat with ribbons that colour. Kitty can see them bouncing above yellow woven straw and chestnut curls as Ruth races through waist-high summer grass, shrieking at some game or other.
Kitty blows on her hands to warm them. She has to get out of her wet clothes. She shrugs off her waterlogged jacket and taffeta dress, letting them slop to the floor. She removes two wet petticoats and then, with a sideways glance at the old woman, unties the ribbons supporting her crinoline, and steps out of it, like a bird released from a cage. She unlaces her boots, unhooks her ruined silk stockings from their garters and peels them off. Underneath, her toes are blue-white from cold. With stiff fingers she pulls at the ribbons of her corset, and it joins the rest of her garments on the floor in a soggy heap, the white muslin and cotton turned grey from mud and water.
Standing in her chemise and drawers, Kitty feels smaller, more vulnerable without her layers of cloth, leather, whalebone and steel. She casts around for a shawl or a blanket, and for a moment the old woman shifts in her chair, her head tilting so slightly that Kitty wonders if she imagined it. She looks in the direction that the old woman seems to be indicating, and spies an old chest gathering dust in a corner. As her icy fingers fumble with the catch she has a sudden burst of sympathy for the old woman, grasping at her needle. But her sympathies are soon forgotten, because in the chest is a dress.
It is exquisite. Pieced all over in thousands of little diamonds, each one perfectly pointed and embroidered with flowers. The dress shimmers with all the colours of the rainbow. It glows in the dullness of the cottage. Kitty can barely breathe. She lifts it gently from the box. The fabric is butter-soft, and whispers like silk.
‘Did you make this?’ she asks the old woman.
Kitty holds the dress up against her body. It clings to her, wrapping itself around her curves like a warm, whispering embrace.
For a moment, everything else goes away. The pounding rain, the whistling breaths of the old woman. There is just silence and stillness. Then a great crash of thunder shakes the walls of the cottage. Kitty looks up and sees that it is growing dark. Her thumb brushes over the intricately embroidered bodice of the dress. She should put it back. She should pull on her own, wet, clammy dress and brave the rain. Her parents will be worried. And they have good reason to be, after what happened to Ruth so many years ago.
Kitty bends over to put the dress back in the chest, but finds that she can’t quite bring herself to let it go. She glances over at the old woman, who, for the first time since Kitty’s arrival, stops sewing. It’s as if the cottage itself is holding its breath. Kitty finds her gaze dragged back to the dress, and her bottom lip catches between her teeth.
Just for a moment …
Just to see how it feels …
She pulls the dress over her head, and with fast fingers does up the tiny cloth-covered buttons. The woman resumes her sewing.
It is a perfect fit. It requires no whalebone corset or steel skirt hoops. She doesn’t have to mould her body to fit the dress – the dress fits her. It clings and shapes in all the right places. It whispers to her like the wind blowing through summer branches. It smells of waist-high grass and warm breezes.
Thunder rumbles overhead again. Kitty pulls the unoccupied armchair closer to the fire and sinks into it. She isn’t cold anymore. The dress, light and airy as it is, is keeping her warm.
‘I’ll just sit here for a moment’, she says to the old woman, curling her bare feet underneath her and resting her head on the back of the chair. ‘While my own things dry. Then I’ll take it off and go home.’
When she awakes a few hours later it is truly dark. The fire hasn’t died yet and it casts a dim, flickering light around the cottage. Kitty feels fuzzy-headed from sleep. Her feet are numb from being curled underneath her. The old woman is still sewing. Kitty sees now that she is piecing together tiny diamonds, creating a miniature version of the dress she is wearing.
‘Did you ever wear it?’ she asks, smoothing a hand over her skirts. ‘It must have been long ago.’
The woman reaches for another scrap of cloth, pinching it around a diamond-shaped scrap of newsprint. The woman’s whistling breath sets the steady rhythm of her sewing. She seems to have sped up a little, her movements no longer quite as shaky.
‘I should get up’, Kitty murmurs drowsily, her eyelids starting to sink. ‘I really should go home.’ But she can’t stop her eyes from closing.
When Kitty wakes the second time, she thinks that the storm has ended. But then a flash of lightning illuminates the room and she can see driving sheets of rain through the thick little window. She just can’t hear the rain any more. A sting of panic pricks icy holes in Kitty’s belly, and she glances over to the other armchair, where the old woman is still sewing. Kitty can’t hear her whistling breath any more, but the panic has stilled, replaced with a kind of drowsy fascination.
The miniature dress is taking shape – it has a bodice and skirt that exactly matches the one Kitty is wearing. And it isn’t just limp fabric either. It is beginning to bulge and swell. The old woman must also be sewing a doll to wear the dress, building it up as she goes.
Another flash of lightning, and Kitty wonders sleepily why she can’t seem to hear anything anymore.
‘Am I dreaming?’ she murmurs, and her voice sounds like it’s coming from a long way away.
As she speaks, the old woman stops stitching for a moment. Kitty blinks.
‘Did you hear me?’ she says.
The old woman’s paper-thin lips suck inward over her gums, then she blinks her milky eyes and resumes her sewing.
The fire is blazing when Kitty awakens for the third time. The room is illuminated and the old woman is bent over her work, the needle flying in and out of the fabric. The doll has arms and legs now, and a head with yellow woollen hair. In the light of the fire, Kitty can see the diamond-shaped scraps of newsprint more clearly, can even read some of the words:
Maisie Gummer missing Elizabeth Finch Harriet Larkin unable to recover girl of fourteen Bessie Smythe searched in vain
Some of the newspaper diamonds look old. Very old.
A flash of gold glints on the old woman’s finger as she reaches for a scrap of yellow fabric. She is wearing a ring, a simple thing set with a single ruby. Kitty has seen it before.
That ring, she wants to say … That ring belonged to my cousin Ruth.
But when she opens her mouth to say it, nothing comes out but croaks and wheezes. Maybe she has caught a chill. The old woman – is she so old, after all? – places careful stitches on the doll’s face – a pretty, bow-shaped mouth under an elegant nose.
Who are you, Kitty tries to say. What did you do to Ruth? What are you doing to me?
The woman’s mouth forms the shape of words, but Kitty can’t hear.
For a fourth and final time, Kitty opens her eyes. She blinks heavily, trying to shake sleep away. The hut blurs around the edges. Once more, Kitty tries to rise from the chair, but she cannot move at all. Coloured fabric flashes before her and she sees that the woman has somehow exchanged clothes with her during the night. Now it is she who is wearing the beautiful coloured dress, and Kitty is just wearing rags.
The woman’s red lips curl in a smile as she makes another stitch.
It’s getting harder for Kitty to open her eyes after each blink.
Kitty sees the doll in her coloured dress, red bow mouth pursed shut. The woman is placing the last few stitches, the doll’s piercing blue eyes and dark lashes.
The woman glances at Kitty with eyes that are the same precise shade of blue.
The woman rises from her chair with a single graceful, fluid movement. Kitty’s sight grows dim. The last thing she sees is the woman move towards her. Then everything is milky grey and, no matter how many times she blinks, Kitty can’t see anything. She feels the doll pressed into her hands and, as she grips it, the stitches come undone and the doll collapses into tiny scraps of fabric and paper.
Kitty feels the faint brushing of air as the woman passes her. Muscles creaking and aching, she manages to move her hand. She reaches out, groping until her paper-dry skin brushes the cool steel of a needle. She grasps it with twisted fingers, and with her other hand reaches for a tiny piece of fabric and a diamond-shaped scrap of newspaper.