There is something to be said about Vintage Clothing.
If every white silk glove, each glamorous evening dress and that wondrous fur coat could talk, they would have you enticed for hours with their tales from the past…
It was Christmas Eve when the snow finally began to fall. It left a smooth, thick blanket over the streets of London. White silence had temporarily muted the city’s thunderous bellow to a dull, gentle whisper. Everything was tranquil. From a distance the city looked like a magnificent cake, topped with decorative white icing. In amongst the long winding street of Portobello Road full of twinkling lights, men roasting chestnuts and the Salvation army band playing loud, merry carols of tidings in the distance a small figure picked her way slowly over the snow covered ground. She was a plain sort of character, nothing out of the ordinary, tall, statuesque, and solid, with a level head to match.
Beatrice Wolcroft came to a stop outside the small, fatigued looking Vintage shop some three quarters from where she had begun. The shop front was painted in a faded racecar green and the words ‘Memory Lane Emporium’ were painted in gold italic lettering above the small shop door. There were small lights wound neatly around two neatly clipped spiral topiary trees. Pigments of deep red, vibrant blue, holly green and magenta twinkled reflecting gentle lights onto the alabaster white snow.
The shop hosted a display of the most glamorous, rare, and sought after vintage gems that any vintage collector, budding fashionista, fashion blogger, or lady of her three story house in Knightsbridge could wish to find. Beatrice glanced into the current and very festive display. In amongst the holly, cheery looking reindeers and glitter there were some recent editions to the Memory Lane family that frankly wouldn’t stay there for too long.
There was a stunning 1920s mustard colour dress, with a full Chalston pleated skirt and delicate embellishment on the hem and puffed sleeves of the dress with an equally adorable hat that matched the color perfectly. A huge pink dress that could only be described as “Princess meets Ballet dancer” with a full skirt, tight fitting bodice, intercut flowers woven on the material of the delicate sleeves and skirt. A true 50s treasure that Grace Kelly would have been honored to wear. A fight fitting 1940s dress was also carefully displayed on one of the mannequins a deep v-neck line in black satin. Fixed carefully to the black material was a brooch. It was small and circular, made of nine carrot gold and on the inside was a delicate white Swan that was swimming in amongst the golden reaves of the river bank. Beatrice guessed that it was fro around the late 19th century. The shop Memory Lanewas perfectly amp, especially on seeing that brooch for the twentieth Christmas of her life.
Her parents were both driven Physicians, constantly working and on the move. So, naturally they needed someone to keep a hawk like eye on their daughter when they were away. Ms Mills a good friend of her grandmothers and coincidently the soul owner of Memory Lane had offered to care for Beatrice from the age of six. Her mother gratefully accepted the offer and from then on every Saturday and other weekday she visited Ms Mills who taught her everything she knew about the world of Vintage.
Beatrice had distinct memories of adorning every single piece of Vintage jewelry she could find on the shop floor and re-acting scenes from her favorite Hollywood Films. Her own mother had once scolded her for doing this. But, in truth Ms Mills found it most endearing. Her two sons had grown up and moved out eight years earlier and she loved having her shop once again filled with the sounds of giggling and a mischievous six year old. Beatrice grinned at the memories of past Decembers spend happily playing in the Aladdin’s cave she had grown so fond of. For some reason her gaze once again settled on that very same brooch, she studied it intently as if seeing it for the first time. She looked back at the snow-covered street of Portobello Road once more and went inside.
“Ms Mills?” she called as she set a foot across the threshold, the old fashion bell making a soft tinkling noise as she entered. She tugged the red woolly snood from her head and shaking snowflakes that looked like dandruff from her tousled brown hair. From behind the counter a short, antique looking women emerged. She wore a pale blue knitted jumper over a crisp white shirt; grey well-tailored trousers covered her once deer like legs, as well as immaculate light blue Gina pumps. Even in older age, she still dressed like a Hollywood actress.
She smiled warmly at Beatrice gazing at her through rounded spectacles that perched precariously at the end of her nose. “Beatrice” she greeted warmly. “I wasn’t expecting you today, you only came in the other week and spent your entire weeks wage on that Dior Evening dress. How was it?” she asked expectantly.
Beatrice grinned, nodding emphatically “it was as wonderful! Just as you said it would be, everyone loved it. I even had one lady ask me if I would be interested in selling it!”
It had been the perfect dress for the office Christmas Party. While the other women in the offices had opted for the predictable options of catalogue bodycon dresses, Beatrice had found a 1950s vintage Christian Dior dress. Striking, in holly berry red with a fitted bodice with a skirt that flared out in huge billows of fabric; the perfect fairytale silhouette that every women desired. He cut flattered her cleavage, off the shoulder with straps that fastened around her arms. It has been a real head turner.
“I said it would be, no women could resist the charm of Christian Dior,” she noted she had that omnipotent look on her face as she busied herself fishing out a bottle of Sauvignon blanc and a box of chocolate seashells from her the top shelf of her draw. Beatrice smirked shaking her head at Ms Mills. “Really Ms Mills, shocking, at your age, you’re a grandmother!” she gasped theatrically miming astonishment.
“And you’re a lawyer,” she retorted. “Anyway it’s Christmas and something tells me you’re in here for something other than to get your hands on my entire shock of 30s silk gloves. So, what can I do for you today, my dear?” she asked cupping her chin In her left palm and settling herself in her comfy leather arm chair that looked as old as she did. Beatrice cleared her throat, not to sure what to say or even how to say it. Before she knew it the question was blurted out in the space between them “The brooch, I wanted to ask you about the swan brooch. I’ve seen it out every singe Christmas since I’ve known you. All twenty-four days of it. Why? And why after all these years is it still unsold?”
Ms Mills blinked, her expression unreadable, she cleared her throat and gestured for her to sit in the small Ghost chair that currently hosted a pair of small black python skin kitten heels. Beatrice carefully picked them up, examining that as she did, from a first glance she could tell that they dated from around the 1950s. She placed them on the floor next to her and sat, leaning forward to face Ms Mills.
“I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that Beatrice,” she sighed. “Every Christmas it’s the same, some arbitrary passer by enters the shop all smiles and charm and asks to buy my ‘exquisite Swan brooch’ from the shop display. I always give that person the same answer.”
“But why? Do you like it that much that you wont sell it?” Beatrice pressed clasping her hands together. Ms Mills tilted her head, looking pensive for a moment as if considering what to say. “I won’t sell it because its story is to precious to be forgotten,” she whispered so silent that Beatrice wasn’t too sure she’d heard it.
She cleared her throat, taking the hand of her lifelong friend. “Story?” she asked quietly.
Beatrice looked into the old ladies eyes; they were full of recollection and something else, something that made her heart leap. She was going to do something significantly huge, something she had never, nor would ever do again.
“I’ve been waiting to sell it to someone,” she answered. “Not just anyone, not just someone who will leave it an a box and the story will fade onto deaf ears. I want it to be remembered for what it is. I wanted to tell it to you” the last word left a haunting silence in the warm jovial looking shop. Beatrice glanced out the window, contemplating what Ms Mills had just said; the snow was falling thicker now. But she didn’t care, she needed to say, she needed to hear this. She felt a pang of desperation in her thoughts; the coloured lights twinkled majestically as if they were casting a spell upon the two of them. Ms Mills slowly rose from her chair, crossing to the shop door. She took a key from her pocket and locked the door. The latch clicked into place, Ms Mills turned the old fashion shop sign to “Closed.” She smiled pocketing the key and crossed the room, sitting back on the seat in front of Beatrice.
Beatrice blinked averting her eyes from the outside world and forgot about everything around her. She clasped Ms Mills hands in hers squeezing gently on the surprisingly delicate skin.
“Tell me,” she breathed and amidst that small faded shop of Portobello Road Ms Mills told her the tale.
“It began back in January 1940, the war was one year in and my father Arnold White went over the English Chanel to fight for his country. As so many did,” she paused to pour out the wine into two small glasses taking a sip from its contents. Beatrice did the same, never taking her eyes off of Ms Mills.
“Arnold wanted to make his family proud, he had two older sisters and his aging father couldn’t do his bit this time round. He was a sergeant in the First World War you know, highly respected. Arnold was twenty by the time he set out to France; he arrived along with five of his old school friends. The ones who tempted him with too many pints in the Lord Nelson. You know that old clapped out pub in the Old Kent Road?”
Beatrice nodded; she knew that pub very well from several of her more colorful colleagues who used to regularly visit the Lord Nelson before it was closed down some two years ago.
“Anyway, my father after much grueling training with the Armed Forces, was finally titled Private Arnold White and was then shortly after placed in barracks in Northern France near the village of Laon, Picardy. It’s a lovely place, so very quaint and tranquil, you must go there some time as a favor to me. My father was spellbound by the place, when he wasn’t training day and night, working his way up the ranks. He spent his time drinking in the local pub Le Shamrock. A very old building, you know very French Rivera with blue shutters and fragrant Lavender growing in small plant boxes outside. Quite the picture perfect village to be, a small river runs by it, a bridge runs across it. A perfect place for lovers, wouldn’t you agree Beatrice?” Ms Mills swigged the last dregs of her glass. Surprising, she was usually talking as much as this and yet she could babble on for hours without so much as losing breath.
“I think I see where you’re going with this,” Beatrice replied twisting the small gold signet ring that she wore around her little finger. She chewed her lip in contemplation feeling very much like she did when she was a small child.
“Well, we shall see,” she replied. “It so happened that one night, about three weeks after he had been there. He met a very fetching young women, a favorite of the village. That when she entered a room, everyone stopped to admire her. Looked like one of those water nymphs in the old poems with a long elegant neck, long shining black hair and equally deep sharp dark eyes. Her name was Odine, Odine Perita she was the daughter a wealthy men. Who funded a lot of the towns forms and food sources. I’d be lying if I said that Arnold didn’t like what he saw, in truth he couldn’t believe his eyes. She was a beauty to look at to be sure and she didn’t even know it. She caught sight of him looking at her and gave him a small wave before heading his way. Well, Arnold couldn’t believe his luck naturally, for before he knew what was happening she had pulled up a chair and was sitting next to him a huge grin on her face. Arnold could smell the sweet smell of lavender on her skin and clothes; he found out later that she and her mother dedicated their whole garden to growing it.
‘You are a soldier?’ she asked in a gentle voice (with perfect English Arnold noted.)
Arnold nodded not to sure of what else to say to this. She laughed at him reaching over to examine the badge fixed to his light brown jacket of his uniform.
‘I see,’ she noted.
She looked at him blinking through long eyelashes that made her look young and earnest.
‘You are a private First Class, no?” she asked.
Arnold nodded again finally gets his courage back. ‘Yes mademoiselle.’ he answered politely. She laughed and patted his hand comfortingly; her skin was soft to the touch. ‘You call me Odine,’ she said. ‘And what should I call you by?’ she asked.
‘Arnold White, although Arnold will do nicely,’ he replied wincing at the name.
‘How long have you been in France?’ she asked.
‘Almost a year,’ he replied swigging down his pint, it left froth around his mouth that he swiftly wiped off with the back of his hand.
“I’ve been in Laon for a short while now,” he added.
“How do we compare to where you come from?” she asked.
“Laon, compared to London it’s like Paradise. Well, more trees and greenery than I’ve ever beheld you know. No buses and trains thundering through the streets all the time, aside from the bombings and army tanks it’s peaceful. Or at least it must have been before the war. London’s nothing like Laon/”
‘London!’ she gasped. Odine had always longed to visit London, to the sights, to get a chance of riding on a double decker bus. She’d seen enough pictures and heard many tales told by friends of her fathers. London was definitely on her list, after the war she had vowed to visit it.
‘Yes indeed, big old London,’ he said a proud grin appearing on his face.
‘I would love to see London one day, I love the sound of it’s vastness. I do not intent to stay put in this little village for the rest of my life.”
Arnold nodded, ‘it’s a big world out there.’
‘And not enough time to see it all,’ she sighed.
A thought occurred to Arnold as she said this.
‘I’ve never seen you before,’ he noted regarding her with interest, taking in all her features. Observing the way her lips quirked into a smile with every word he said and her small delicate hands that were as pale as a Lilly.
“She took a lock of her long back hair again began to idly fiddle with it turning it around her skilled fingers. ‘I have been ill for the last few months,’ she responded.
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,’ he replied.
She shook her head dismissively, ‘it’s nothing; it was a fever and nothing more. Heaven forbid such a thing. I couldn’t do my share for the War if I were dead now could I?’ she added.
He blinked; she seemed to have more mettle than many of the lads he knew in his barrack. ‘Your share?” he asked.
She nodded, ‘yes my family own a farm not far from here, I spend my time growing things, useful things. I give it to our allies, the French, the Americans, and of course the British. I like the British, I like their sense of humor.’ She finished with a wry smile crossing her lips, ‘I know what you Tommie’s are like. I hear too many stories not to know.’
Arnold’s courage grew instantly and he summoned that bold smile that had one him affections from many English ladies in the past. ‘Well then,’ he chuckled. ‘Come here more often and we shall trade ‘stories’ of humor. I love a good story,”
“Is that the end?” Beatrice asked doubtfully.
Ms Mills immediately shock her head, “no there’s plenty more my dear. But, I just wanted to clarify something here.”
“What?” Beatrice asked one eyebrow raised quizzically.
“They fell in love,” she stated simply.
“What? In love? Just like that?” she asked cynically clicking her fingers for emphasis.
“No, not the whole Shakespeare Love at first sight thing. It took a little while, but after trading many interesting stories of humor and courage. One after another, one about how she’d had to stash two soldiers one English and one American from two angry fathers and five strong brothers. After they had…well, I’m sure you can imagine. A drunken night, a midnight swim, and there you have it. Both were expecting new editions to each astute French Families. He in turn told her plenty of stories about what his comrades got up to when they weren’t on duty. Soon after they realized that they had more of a sardonic friendship. They had chemistry and plenty of it. After that when Odine wasn’t busy helping others or running errands for her father she spend a lot of her time in Le Shamrock with Arnold. Arnold had caught a Salmon and boy did he know it. But, things were about to take a turn and a very testing one at that.”
“Odine and Arnold were leaving Le Shamrock one night when a red faced, panting English sergeant bounded up to Arnold. He had the three stripes on his immaculate brown uniform, well as soon as Arnold saw this he stood tall and upright. Sargent Fumers nodded at Odine politely, who returned the gesture with equal graciousness. Arnold gave him a brisk solute and stood to attention.
‘Private, we’ve been given our marching orders, we have been ordered to pull out and head on further down the line.’
‘How soon?’ he asked.
‘Tomorrow night,’ he answered. ‘Be up and ready at Six hundred hours and no slacking about it either. You understand?’ he said briskly.
Before Arnold could even open his mouth in response, sergeant Fumers was rapidly heading towards the riverbank. Where many of Arnold’s fellow men spent their time lounging around and trading news.
Before Arnold could even open his mouth in response, sergeant Fumers was rapidly heading towards the riverbank. Where many of Arnold’s fellow men spent their time lounging around and trading news.
When Arnold turned back towards Odine, he saw that tears had sprung to her eyes. She glanced up into the late evening sky, not looking at him. It seemed like an eternity before Odine spoke, ‘I wish you didn’t have to leave’ she whispered.
‘To many people pass through my little village, all friendly, all scared, all fearing that they may return to their homes and lives. Most I don’t ever see again, some I see and I wish I had not. But, you…’
Arnold wrapped an arm around her soldiers, nervously inhaling the sweet Lavender smell that he had grown so used to. It now smelt even more wonderful than it had before and that made it all the sadder at the daunting prospect of leaving this beautiful village, of leaving her. ‘Odine,’ he sighed.
Odine turned to face him, putting a finger to his lips. ‘Don’t talk, not now, that’s all we have done for the last five weeks. I want to remember this with actions, not words.’ With these last words Odine leant forward and kissed him, it was a soft, somewhat desparate kiss that seemed to linger well after. She gave him one final look, winked and hurried into the cold night evening.
So, there he stood, cold, shivering and very much confused about what to do next. Well, that was until something happened, a vision from God or so he claimed. For out of one of the neighboring trees a solitary bird swooped down from the branches and soared into the night. As Arnold saw this thought seemed to sail instantly into his mind.
“You see Arnolds division kept homing pigeons at their base, at that time they had ten of them ready to deliver messages to and from place to place. With this new found idea nestled securely in his brain, picked up his wits and raced for Odine’s house on the other side of town. He’d seen it many times, prior to that night. Arnold acting the epitome of chivalrous had escorted her home on many nights before returning to his base some five miles walk from Laon. Her house was half a mile on the left side of the village and when he finally arrived to her house he was shivering from the cold.
The house was a huge, stately house situated in amongst a luscious green meadow of land. It had three floors and every large window had it’s own balcony, the house was completely in darkness when he arrived and this added to his shock when he came across Odline. There she was standing up against the wall of the house, looking as melancholy as Arnold had ever seen her.
‘Odine’ he whispered going over to her to put a hand on her shoulder. Odine blinked and turned to face him, her face partly covered in darkness from the semi full moon. She smiled thinly, as he stood intensely regarding her face, he wasn’t sure of what to say or indeed how to say it. But, he realized an idea as crazy as his should be told.
‘Odine, I don’t know what you’ll think of me after tonight, after what I tell you. But, I can’t pretend to go on fighting into this war without making a promise to you. I understand what you feel and I know I feel it to. We’re good together Odine and if there wasn’t things pulling me deeper into this wretched war I’d marry you tomorrow.’ Arnold exhaled heavily, waiting for a response and what he got was better than anything he could have hoped for. She kissed him and this time it lasted much longer than before.”
Beatrice looked up at her, totally engrossed in the story “well carry on then” she pressed.
“What makes you think there’s more?” Ms Mills asked playfully.
“Oh come off it!” Beatrice moaned. “Don’t toy with me woman.”
“Alright, Arnold came up with a plan and a very Romantic one was it and all. Arnold knew that his base had the homing pigeons ready for when the soldiers moved down the line to fight. So, what Arnold proposed was this, that for twenty days that each of them in turn would send a message via homing pigeon and hope that they would receive it. The plan was that Odine would sneak by the pigeons coupes every night and search for a note that had a red ink line carefully marked on the note that was intended for her. The same would be said for Arnold, it was risky and it was a huge gamble. But, it was the best bet they had. Arnold proposed that on the twentieth day if there was still a final note from him that they would hang it all and get married. If there was no note, Odine would know that Arnold was dead and move on with her life. That was the gamble.”
“But, how does that brooch fit into the equation?” Beatrice asked.
“The brooch was a present Odine to Arnold, a lucky talisman if you will. Her own mother had given it to her father during the First World War. He came back alive and kicking, Odine declared sanctimoniously that it was a vestal of good luck and that it would keep him safe. Odine sent him to war with the small swan brooch carefully pined to the inside of his Winter Coat and the test of time truly began.
“For those torturous twenty days each of them received a letter from one and other. Odine snuck into the pigeon coupes, precariously risking being discovered on many occasions. But, somehow with Gods grace both Arnold and Odine managed to send letters to one and other without one single other soul knowing of it.”
“What kind of messages did they send?” Beatrice persisted.
“All sorts, memories from their past, their favorite things they loved to do, their plans for after the war, how much they longed to see each other again, all sentimental things like that. I have them somewhere…”
Ms Mills got to her feet and disappeared into the room behind the counter, she came back holding an old wooden box. The sort that one may keep trinkets in, she placed it on the counter. Beatrice gasped and stared up at Ms Mills.
“Is that?” she breathed.
Ms Mills nodded allowing her to look through the box. The paper was old, torn and stained, but Beatrice handled it as reverently as if they were the crown jewels. She studied the writing of Odine it was tidy, carefully written copperplate scroll and Arnold was of a jerky mess. Of course it would be, given the circumstances. It was obvious that they adored one and other that were plain to see from the letters.
“On the twentieth day when Odine went to check the pen, she was surprised to find that the little carrier pigeon Avril was lying sprawled out in her coupe bloodied and battered. But, there was an unmistakable note tied to her foot. After tending to the bird as best she could, she untied the note from the birds leg, with it was the very same brooch, and it read…”
Ms Mills leafed through the letters until she came to the very last one in the box, Beatrice realized absent-mindedly that they were in chronological order.
I am sending you this final note as I promised along with the brooch to tell you that I will no longer need it to keep me safe.
I have been injured on the front line at 2pm on December 23rd 1940.
They say I will be transported to a hospital twenty miles away, where they hope I am to recover.
There has been, but one soul consolation during my lonely, nights and days on the front line and that’s you my Odine.
But, know that in these last few isolated weeks I have had time to understand how much I care about you.
War can do crazy things to a person, it can drive people to insanity, and rip loved ones from you in the space of a breath. But it can drive people together.
It brought you and I together and no matter what the future has in store for me.
Know that I do love you and thank God that I was made a solider.
I will see you at Laon Cathedral, there in your ivory dress of your mothers that you so often told me about.
I send you all the love in the world, my lovely Odine and soon to be my wife.
Private Arnold White”
Beatrice put a hand over her mouth, her eyes widening. It was like one of these Hollywood moments that up till now she had thought didn’t, couldn’t exist in real life.
“Did he…” she trailed off into a silence not able to bring herself to saying what she feared.
Ms Mills shook her head a huge smile appearing on her face, “no, no my old dad was as tough as old boots. He always was, he arrived back in France on New Years Eve and they were married three days later. After the war, they moved to Cornwell and then soon after along came my two older brothers and me. They lived their days out farming and making money from it. Odine continued to grow Lavender and spread goodwill. Especially during Christmas. It really was like the cliché “Happily Ever After.”
Beatrice leant over putting her arms round Ms Mills, “you wonderful lady. What a story our parents had!”
“They were and they made a good job me and my brothers,” she replied wrapping her own wiry arms around Beatrice like she had done when she was younger.
“If it hadn’t been for my father helping with the funds, I wouldn’t have been able to start up Memory Lane. The brooch was the reason why I started this venture. I remember one night after mother had told me the story behind the brooch, I thought to myself. Vintage clothing, it is so beautiful, so wonderful and so mysterious. There’s a mystery behind every garment you see in here. Who wore it? what places has it seen? what stories does it have to tell?”
Beatrice nodded, “you should have been a poet Ms Mills.”
“Nonsense,” she snapped. “It’s the truth, but now onto business. I have been wanting to tell you about this brooch for years and now that I have you can hardly leave without it.”
“Ms Mills!” Beatrice gasped her mouth opened in protest.
“Now I’ll hear none of it Beatrice. You know the story and now I want you to have the brooch too. Call it an early Christmas present. My two sons would hardly appreciate it as much as you would. But promise me one thing.” She said her eyes sparking with sincerity.
“Anything,” Beatrice breathed.
“Promise me that every year, on Christmas Eve, you’ll take out this brooch and remember the story I told you. And one year when you’re as old as me, pass it down to another young woman as beautiful as you are. Make it so the story will never fade, I’d hate that. It’s such a precious story to me and that’s why I couldn’t bare to part with the brooch for anyone accept you.”
“I promise it,” she whispered taking her hands in hers once more.
“Then it’s a deal,” she declared merrily clapping her hands emphatically.
“You must let me pay you for such a brooch Ms Mills,” Beatrice replied her hand reaching for her purse.
“Oh no you don’t young lady,” Ms Mills laughed grabbing her hand. “It’s a gift Beatrice, a gift from me to you.”
I hope you have enjoyed this story and I’d like to extend to you all a very merry Christmas with love from Fashioneyesta.