Monday, 26 May 2014

The Fringed Kimono - Sally Blake

Around the time that Sally found the wonderful chemist treasure trove in Soho, she also found a 1920s fringed kimono in a charity shop. When wearing Caron’s Narcisse Noir and trying on the garment, she got such a spooky feeling, she wrote the following, chilling, short story...
William Merritt Chase (1849 - 1916) - 'The Blue Kimono'

The Fringed Kimono
By Sally Blake

It was far too expensive, especially for a charity shop, but then prices had been getting way out of reach for some time. Ever since they’d got the design gurus in, and started to hang clothes on broomsticks suspended from the ceiling by fine twine.

The pleasurable days of rooting through jumble long gone, but £40! Surely that was expensive for cast-offs even in Marylebone. All right, it was silk, and had a fine fringe – so long in fact that it touched the floor when worn, but no-one possessed of any taste would ever have worn it. It was the sort of copy of a traditional Japanese kimono that a chorus girl would have worn long ago. Probably in the late ‘20’s or early ‘30’s.

You could almost smell the grease-paint and the hastily stubbed out cigarettes. There would have been a tin of “cremine” on the dressing table to remove the pancake make-up, and sticks of grease-paint covered with a cloth at night after the show was over in an attempt to deter the mice who found the brightly coloured crayons delicious.

So how had such a garment ended up in a north London charity shop? Perhaps the original owner had died, and whoever had been given the task of sorting through her things had decided to donate it. No-one in their right minds would have wanted to own such a piece of exotica, leave alone pay £40 for the privilege, but Sarah was a romantic. She took one look at it and had to have it. She knew she would never wear it. She was too short for a start, the fringe trailed on the shop floor as she tried it on. Whoever it had belonged to had been at least 5’7” and slender. Sarah knew it would never be of any constructive use whatsoever, but still she felt drawn to it somehow. She felt deep in her purse, paid the price, and took it home.

Sarah spent much of her life in charity shops, picking up beads and books and handbags and gloves. Up to a good third, or more, of her income was spent in this way. Her birth sign was that of the crab, and like a crab decorating its underwater cave, she hooked pretty things into her lair.

Every week, she pushed her daughter’s pushchair into the charity shops, and every week she returned with more artefacts.

Shoes, oh dear Lord, the shoes! There was some woman out there who took the same small size and didn’t apparently wait five minutes before getting rid of them. Beautiful shoes; shoes by Gucci, and Ravel, and Pinet, and Russell and Bromley and Ferragamo, still containing a fine powdering of biscuit crumbs in the seams.

“It’s my daughter,” sighed the shop manageress, “but what can I do?”

For some time after she got the kimono home, Sarah watched it from the kitchen table. She had latched it onto the hook on the back of the door, and the kimono bulged out over the top of the mass of carrier bags kept there for recycling. Sarah lit a cigarette and contemplated the life of the original owner of the garment. On closer inspection, she now felt it could even be older than she had at first suspected. Perhaps it had graced the back of a dressing room door as early as 1912. It could even have been around when the Titanic went down.

The thought excited Sarah. “Hands across time” she liked to call the link between objects and the people into whose care, or not, such things had passed over the years.

She began to speculate as to what sort of perfume the original owner might have worn. Leaving her cigarette in the ashtray, she got up from the table and although she knew it was ridiculous, buried her nose in the neck of the garment. She did not know what she had expected, but the smell of dust came as no surprise. Dust, and the distinct smell of the charity shop, a smell that had been the same in every second-hand clothing shop since time immemorial.

She sat back down and picked up her cigarette again. Nodding to herself, she decided that the dead showgirl had probably just worn something cheap. An oriental of some kind. Heady and seductive. Something in a showy bottle, undoubtedly left at the stage door by an admirer.

Then she thought again. Stage Door Johnnies were often high born gentlemen, swept away by long legs and false eyelashes and stage-lighting. Many was the stately home whose châtelaine had started off in the chorus at the Music Hall, she remembered with a smile. Perhaps this kimono’s owner had been given something more upmarket than a Phŭl Nana or Californian Poppy to win and keep her favour from others crowding around the back of the theatre after the show. After all, she had ended up with an address in Marylebone.

Then she remembered the scent her own grandmother had said she had worn to the races “before the war”. She had meant the Great War of 1914 of course. She was sure she had some of it somewhere.

Foolish, she knew, but she felt somehow the kimono would like to smell like it used to. Or at least something approximating it. Tamping out her cigarette, she scraped back her chair. She knew where it was. She had a box of old perfumes she had bought as a job-lot when the chemist in the High Street had given way to another coffee shop. She remembered how delighted she had been to see her grandmother’s scent had been among them.

Picking the kimono off the back of the door, and flinging it on with a flourish, she hurried to her bedroom and burrowed under her bed for the wicker suitcase in which she kept her best and prettiest things. There it was. In among the gloves, and scarves, and feathered fans. Still in its box. The cellophane wrapper merely opened at the top, but not removed to preserve the perfume as much as possible. The tiny bottle inside glinted as she raised it to the light. Its black glass stopper wedged in firmly, she had to tap it gently with a bottle of nail polish to get it to give; “glass on glass” – a neat trick.

Sarah smiled with satisfaction as she dabbed a little of the precious elixir carefully on her neck where it came into contact with the scuffed silk of the old gown and twirled in front of the full-length mirror at the foot of her bed to release the scent.


Iris couldn’t remember how long she had been asleep. It had been some night that was certain. She couldn’t quite see where she was as it seemed to be dusk already. She must have slept all day. She certainly didn’t seem to be at home. Strangely, she did not seem to be at Bertie’s either, although the last she remembered was a cab ride with him. She sighed and stretched her long limbs and breathed in the scent that was wafting towards her from somewhere.

Narcisse Noir. She savoured the words in her mouth, pulling out the “waaah” sound at the end of the “noir”. She giggled.  Strangely, she felt like she hadn’t smelled it in years. How it reminded her of the night Bertie had given a bottle of it to her. He had said he could still smell it on his pillow days later, which had been shocking but rather lovely.

She supposed she ought to get up, but it was so cold. She rolled her neck around a couple of times as her eyes focussed on the unfamiliar room. There seemed to be a long mirror, a dressing table, and a strange basket of assorted pretty items sitting on top of the bed. Iris shivered as lights danced from what must be her bottle of Narcisse Noir on the unfamiliar bedside table. Turning, she saw with delight, her old kimono seemingly suspended in front of the mirror.

Too woozy and cold to wonder how such a thing was possible, she reached out through the dim air... and put it on.

Sally Blake