Something blue – winner Voice of Africa competition 2008

Susanne was known as The Prettiest Woman in the Village. But what was this worth, wondered that woman, if she was the only one not yet married? What was the point of a tiny waist, perfect breasts, shapely calves and eyes as soft as an impala’s if you were nearly thirty and still single?

It was all Auntie’s fault. If her aunt had allowed her to accept Zak the butcher’s offer of marriage, she’d be the prettiest, the wealthiest – and married, but Aunty had said no. She’d wanted assurance that Susanne loved the suave butcher, yet Susanne simply couldn’t muster up that love. So single she remained: frustrated in status and career.

Six mornings a week Susanne caught the bus from the dusty, mist-veiled village that nestled in the bend of the river, to her job in town as a seamstress in the Solomon’s shop. Most of the time she stitched endless seams on overalls; once in a blue moon she was allowed to do the work she loved.

This Monday morning brought just such an opportunity.

Susanne was sitting at her machine finishing fiddly pockets, when Mrs Solomon stuck her head around the door that divided shop from sewing room.

‘Quick, Susanne, there’s a customer. He wants a dress for “the most beautiful woman in the world”. By Friday.’

Why did customers always leave everything to the last minute? Susanne ran a hand over her newly braided hair, slipped on her sandals and followed Mrs Solomon.

Oh. My. Heavens. There at the counter was the most alarmingly handsome man she had ever seen: with crisp white shirt enhancing coppery glowing skin, one carelessly shifted cuff revealing a watch that had to be real gold and hair cut so stylishly that it could only mean one thing: City.

Susanne could already feel the blush rising, but she managed to stammer out, ‘Good morning, sir. How can I help you?’

His warm smile dazzled her. ‘Good morning to you, too. My name is Thandi.’

‘Thandi,’ she spluttered. ‘I’m Susanne.’

‘Now, Miss Susanne, I’ve probably left it horribly late, but I need a dress. A going-away dress. For this special lady.’ From his jacket pocket he drew a photograph of a willowy beauty. ‘Her measurements are on the back. Can you do it?’

Susanne felt slightly dizzy. ‘A going-away dress? So there’s to be a wedding?’

‘There is, indeed. On Saturday. The dress is to be a surprise for the bride, but I’ve just got back in town. Please tell me you can do it.’

Susanne couldn’t resist the sincerity in the pleading eyes. ‘Will the, um, bride be coming in for a fitting?’

‘No. It’s a surprise, remember.’ He grinned. ‘Will that be a problem?’ he asked.

Men are so clueless, thought Susanne. Of course it will be a problem. ‘No, not really. I’m sure I can make a plan. Do you know what style she might want?’

‘Something traditional, yet classical. I heard it was your speciality.’

Susanne had no idea where he’d heard that, and wasn’t about to ask for fear of blushing again, but it was true. When given the chance, she’s designed some of the most ravishing party gowns in the region. If she’d only the time and courage to dump the overalls and go it alone, she would. But the demand wasn’t great enough and she hadn’t dared take the risk; not while Aunty was so dependent on her income.

Life could be horribly frustrating.

‘Could you come back after lunch and I’ll have some sketches ready for you?’

‘I’ll be here at two. Thank you. Susanne.’ The way he said her name made her skin tingle and a dew of sweat gloss her upper lip.

‘I’ll see you then,’ she stammered as Thandi turned to leave the shop.

Damn. Why are all the perfect ones married? Or about to be.

But now it was action stations. Susanne’s overalls were assigned to another seamstress and a table next to the window was cleared to allow Susanne fresh air as she worked her magic.

She gazed at the photograph of the bride-to-be. If ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ was going to marry that splendid man, then so be it. She would make a dress fit for such a match and every guest at the reception would ask for her name and they would all flock to her, Susanne, demanding such dresses for themselves. Then she would open her own shop and would become rich and admired and it wouldn’t matter if there was no handsome man in her life, because she simply wouldn’t have time for one.

At two o’clock, Thandi returned; this time with shirtsleeves turned back to reveal deliciously muscled forearms.

Together they studied her designs. The first two were rejected, but when he saw the third, he sighed. ‘She’ll look perfect in that. I like the wraparound bit of the skirt, and those sleeve wing-things are great. Don’t make the neckline too low, though. I don’t want my mother fainting at the reception.

‘What about material. Do you have something blue? She looks fantastic in blue.’

Bolts of silk, linen and soft cotton lace in shades from summer sky to deep ocean were produced and layered over the counter for his perusal. As they poured over the material Susanne’s arm brushed against Thandi’s and she felt a cold sharp current run up her arm and down to the pit of her stomach. Gasping softly she glanced up into his deep chocolate eyes and saw with a shock that he had felt the same.

No, she thought, her head spinning. This couldn’t be. This mustn’t be.

‘Excuse me,’ she whispered, dashing to the back for buttons and braid … and a moment to collect herself.

When she returned, Thandi was leaning against the doorway, an odd expression on his face. ‘I’ll leave the rest to you, I think. When should I come back?’

‘Come in on Thursday afternoon and tell me if you’re happy, then I can make any changes and have it ready for you by Friday midday.’

‘Good. Good. Well, I’ll see you Thursday then.’

For three days Susanne measured, cut and sewed. In the evenings she took home panels of hazy silk on which to hand-stitch hundreds of tiny peacock blue beads. Somehow her awakening desire for this man only served to spur her on to make his bride the most beautiful going-away dress in the universe.

It’s so unfair, she thought for the thousandth time as the paraffin lamps flickered in the fading light.

On Thursday morning Thandi returned to the shop, expressing real delight at the creation. Again, Susanne felt the disturbing connection and studiously avoided eye contact. She was disappointed and relieved when he left.

By lunchtime Susanne was exhausted and decided to take a walk to clear her head. Winding her way around cars and bicycles and through throngs of pedestrians, she soon found herself in the upper end of town, where office blocks lined the streets and packed restaurants spilled out onto pavements.

It was there that she saw him, sitting under an umbrella at a café table, holding the hand of the elegant woman in the photograph. He seemed to be pleading with her and she was laughing. There was such warmth in the woman’s face and such love in his that Susanne stood locked in a moment of complete stillness as the world spun around her. Then, from deep inside came a surge of longing so strong she feared it would consume her. A great sob rose in her throat and spilled out before she could stop it and, at that moment, Thandi looked up and caught her eye.

Susanne turned and ran.

She could barely see where she was going as she sped back to the safety of the shop, but as she arrived, panting and sobbing, two firm hands grabbed her from behind and swung her round and two firm arms held her against a crisp white shirt.


What must he think of her? How could she have let him know how she felt? She wanted to sink through the cracks in the pavement and disappear for eternity.

‘Listen,’ he said as he stroked her hair. ‘Listen to me, Susanne. I have teased you and that was very wrong.’

‘Teased me?’ she stammered.

‘Yes. I’m so sorry. You were so sweet and pretty I couldn’t help myself… There is going to be a wedding on Saturday. No, wait!’ he commanded as she struggled to free herself. ‘It is my sister’s wedding. The dress is for her…’

Susanne raised her tear-streaked face to his. ‘Your sister? That beautiful woman is your sister?’

‘Yes. I was just asking her if I could bring someone special to the wedding. You. As my partner.’

‘And what did she say?’ breathed Susanne, the sadness now replaced by something quite, quite different.

‘She said only if I caught you in time.’

1 Comment

  1. Jon Quirk said,

    February 1, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Shelagh is quite simply one of the finest writers around.

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