Authors: Lauri Kubbuitsile
The designs were all up on dummies. Mpho still had to do some finishing touches but her creations were basically complete. She looked at them and beamed with pride. “So here they are,” she said with a flourish, standing in front of the strapless blue shweshwe cocktail dress. She turned to No 22, the black woman. “What's your name?”
“Great. I thought this dress would really work on you with your long legs and elegant neck.”
Koketso smiled, rubbing her hand over what had suddenly gone from being a part that connected her body to her head to an “elegant neck”. She smiled. “Yeah . . . sure . . . I love it.”
Mpho looked over the other two designs wondering who could wear which. “What's your name?” she asked the Indian girl. She was far too short and her skin was even worse up close. The girl was attractive in her own way, though definitely not model beautiful. Mpho kept reminding herself that she had to make do with what she had.
“Miriam,” the girl said.
“Okay, Miriam, I think you'll look best in the two-piece trouser suit. I'll have to take up the trousers but that's not really a problem.” Miriam's face squished into a scowl. “Is something wrong?” Mpho asked.
“To be honest, I don't like that suit,” Miriam answered. “It looks like something a clown would wear. It's so . . . colourful. And the beadwork on the waist . . . It's just too much. I'd much rather wear the evening gown.” Miriam smiled and Mpho realised her teeth were not one of her assets either.
“Well, if ya think I'm wearin' that thang, you're crazy. Look at me, I was born for evening gowns,” Miss Hair said.
Mpho slumped into a nearby chair; her head was beginning to pound.
Miriam turned to Miss Hair. “Well, I'm still not wearing that suit.”
Miss Hair turned to Mpho. “Ya know, I'm busy. I got an appointment with a guy who's thinkin' of usin' me in a shoot. I gotta go, man. Can you make up your mind?”
Mpho looked at the girl and wondered what she thought speaking in an American twang was doing for her image. She looked back and forth at Miriam and Miss Hair and felt sad. She wanted something better for her designs. Mpho didn't want to have to settle for these two and she didn't want her designs to have to settle for them either.
“Yeah . . . okay . . .” Mpho hesitated. Was she doing the right thing? The show was only five days away. Was she insane? “Okay, I think I'll pass on both of you.”
“Pass? On me?” Miss Hair said indignantly, no longer sounding American at all. “For the three years I've been here, I've always been in the graduate show. You can't just pass on me!”
“Well, I just did . . . Maybe someone else will use you but not me. Thanks for your time.” Mpho watched Miss Hair storm out with Miriam behind her. “Okay well, at least I have you,” she said to Koketso. “Can you come for a fitting tomorrow?”
“Sure, no problem. See you then.” Koketso left.
Mpho let her head slump on the table. God, what was she going to do now? No models five days before the show. Friday was the dress rehearsal and Saturday the show that would decide her career. What was she going to do?
Mpho looked up and there was Annabella, carrying two coffees and a bag that smelled suspiciously like the chocolate doughnuts Mrs Smith made. “I brought treats and hoped I'd get a sneak preview of your designs.” Her cousin put the coffee and bag on the table and walked over to the dummies.
“Oh, Mpho! These are fantastic! You are going to murder them, seriously!” Annabella moved back and forth around the designs to see them from all sides.
Mpho took out a chocolate-covered doughnut. “You think so?”
“Definitely! Without a doubt. Look at this!” Her cousin was standing by the two-piece. “I love this! I love the tails at the back and the belt. Fantastic! You are so creative.”
As Mpho watched Annabella her mood shifted. She looked at the evening gown and suddenly envisioned Marika in it with her long blonde hair teased out and her lips painted ruby red. She saw Annabella's curvy body filling out the two-piece, her long elegant arms swinging out in front of her as she walked down the runway. She could see them both proudly wearing her designs, happy to be part of making her dream come true. Maybe things would work out after all, Mpho thought. “Annie . . . I've got a favour to ask.”
Annabella sat down and started opening packets of sugar and dumping them in her coffee. “Okay . . . Shoot, sweetie.”
“Any chance you'd like to model that two-piece on Saturday?”
“Me? But I'm no model . . . I'm sure you could get someone better . . .” Annabella always underestimated herself; she lacked confidence in her looks and ability at most things. That was why she had settled for Johnny's no-good father and worked at the dry-cleaners instead of trying to get back in school.
“No,” said Mpho. “You're the best woman for the job. You're beautiful and more importantly, you love the outfit. Clothes shine on people who love them. Please do me and the two-piece the honour of wearing it at the graduate show.”
Annabella got up, took the jacket off the dummy and slipped it over her shoulders. Mpho smiled. The colours looked fabulous against her dark skin. Annabella looked down at the African printed fabric and rubbed her hands over the surface. “Thanks so much for asking me . . . I'd love to!”
Mpho knew it would be only a short phone call to Marika and she would have her models. She also knew that in the end her models would do the best for her designs because they loved her. They would wear the clothes with pride, and that was all Mpho wanted.
Mpho felt like she'd been running nonstop for three days. Trying to get everyone to the lab for fittings was proving difficult. When she was free, Annabella was working and Marika was in class. Or she was working and they were free. Koketso also had a frantic schedule. Mpho felt frazzled from lack of sleep and nerves over the show in just two days.
She'd finally got everybody sorted out by waiting for Koketso at the lab until 11pm the night before. That was, everyone except for Annabella. She decided the best thing to do was to take the dress to the dry-cleaners and beg Mrs Smith to give her cousin a few minutes off so she could get the dress fitted. Mpho checked her bag to see she had everything she needed and headed to the door of the flat. “Okay, I'm off then,” she shouted into the kitchen where Jakes and her mother sat drinking tea.
She closed the door behind her and turned straight into someone who was coming up the stairs. “Oh, sorry . . .” Mpho said, not knowing at first who she had bashed into. “Oh . . . Thabang . . . I'm just rushing off . . . I have things . . . and then I'm . . . just going to . . .” She closed her mouth, realising she was making a fool of herself.
It had been five days since Mr Habib's party. She'd kept herself frantically busy, trying to believe that she was over Thabang forever. In the chaos of preparing for the show, she almost believed it. But looking at him in the gloomy stairwell, she realised she had lied to herself.
“I'm visiting my mother. She's sick again. I want to take her to Morningside Clinic; the doctor she's been going to can't seem to find the problem.” Thabang smiled but Mpho could see a hint of sadness, a veil of worry.
“I hope she'll be okay,” she said sincerely.
“Yeah, thanks. I need to get her to the right place, that's all. I'm sure she'll be fine.”
Just then the door behind her opened and Mpho turned to see the angry face of Jakes. She felt she needed to explain why she and Thabang were in the hall together. “He's visiting his mother . . .” she heard herself stammer guiltily.
Jakes ignored her. “What do you want with my sister, Thabang? Are you out to destroy my whole family? Is that some part of your twisted life plan?”
“Even though it's really none of your business, I wasn't here to see Mpho. I'm going up to my mother's.”
Jakes's forehead crunched up with anger. “What did you say? None of my business?”
“Listen, Jakes, I think it's time you got over the band's break-up, okay? It's all bygones. You're going on with your life; I'm going on with mine. Why can't we just leave it at that?” Thabang appeared to be sincere about making peace.
“Your life? What a joke! You stole that life you're living!” Jakes's voice was rising with emotion.
Mpho begged, “Jakes, leave it. We need to go. You have to get back to work. I have to get to the dry-cleaners.Â ”
“No, I want to hear what he's talking about. Come on, Jakes, what's that comment supposed to mean? What life did I steal?Â ” Thabang asked. He stood back, waiting for Jakes to answer.
Mpho could see Thabang was getting angry too. She felt sick. She didn't know what she'd do if they started fighting.
“You know what I mean, you thief! You built your big recording company on a song you stole from me. Now you're a rich man and I'm still struggling to make ends meet.”
Thabang looked confused. “I stole your song? What's that supposed to mean?”
“Why act stupid? You know what I mean â
! I wrote that song and you stole it. That song launched your company! You're successful because you're a thief, that's it, end of story!” Jakes was breathing hard and his face was flushed.
“Is that what you think?” Thabang asked, his anger gone, replaced with something Mpho couldn't quite recognise. “Is that what this is all about?”
“Look at him, Mpho! He doesn't even think what he did is a big issue! A small bump along the rich man's road.”
Jakes could take no more. He headed down the stairs and Mpho turned to follow. Her brother was right; Thabang didn't even look ashamed about being caught out.
Thabang grabbed her arm to stop her. “Is that it then? Is that why you don't want to see me?”
Mpho looked at him without saying anything. She needed to go, she wanted to be away from him and Jakes was waiting for her at the foot of the staircase. She pulled her arm out of his grip and rushed down the stairs. At the bottom, she looked up one last time before going out the front door. Thabang still stood where she left him, his arms hanging dejectedly by his side. She turned and rushed out the door.
* * *
At the dry-cleaners it was a mission to get the dress fitted. Every minute or so Mrs Smith's head would pop in at the back room, offering bits of advice. “Don't you think you should take it in around the shoulders? It looks a little big.”
Mpho would try to respond politely. After all, Mrs Smith was kind enough to let Annabella take a break to do the fitting. “Yes, Mrs Smith, I think you're right.”
A minute later she'd be back. “You know, dear, I really like those trousers but they do seem to be a bit long, don't you think?”
Mpho spoke through a mouth full of pins. “I'll sort it out just now.”
Her cousin stood as still as a statue. Mpho could see the fact that she was going to be a model had suddenly dawned on her; the reality of the whole thing was setting in â and the panic. “What if I fall? I could fall, you know; it happens.”
“You won't fall,” Mpho reassured her.
“But I could.”
“I could stumble and fall off the stage.”
Between Mrs Smith's advice and Annabella's worries Mpho started feeling a massive headache pounding behind her temples. She just wanted to finish. She was still upset over what had happened at No 78. She couldn't figure out Thabang's reaction. Why hadn't he said something to Jakes? Why hadn't he defended himself? He just became quiet, as if he'd been caught out but didn't care. It wasn't that she didn't believe her brother; how could he lie? There had just been a part of her that still held out that it was a mix-up, a mistake of some sort. But now she knew that there was no hope of that. Thabang's reaction proved he had no defence and, more importantly, he didn't seem to think what he had done was wrong. Jakes was right; Thabang had no morals. Jakes was right and she had been very, very wrong.
“Okay, that's it. I'm done; you can take it off,” Mpho told Annabella. As she packed the two-piece in her bag she caught the whiff of Thabang's aftershave on her arm where he had grabbed her. It stopped her in her tracks. It pulled her back to the times they'd been together; at the Greek restaurant and the theme park, dancing at Mr Habib's party. The memories were as crisp and fresh as the feelings were raw and real. Mpho shook herself. She couldn't do this now. Tomorrow was the show. If she was going to fall apart, it would have to be afterwards. She turned to Annabella. “Don't be late, Annie. The dress rehearsal starts at 7pm.”
Annabella nodded her head mechanically but said nothing. Her face looked gaunt and her lips were sealed tight. Mpho could see she was petrified. She patted her cousin on the shoulder. “Everything is going to be just fine; don't worry.”
Though she tried to calm her cousin, Mpho hoped with every inch of her being that what she was saying was true. Right then she desperately needed to believe that everything would be just fine.
* * *
The hall was crowded with nervous designers and their models. Ms Bennet got on the stage. “Attention, people. Please take your seats. I have a few announcements.”
Nervously Mpho guided Koketso, Marika and Annabella to seats in the second row. “This is going to be so much fun,” Marika whispered to Mpho. She'd been madly excited ever since she was asked to be a model. She hardly talked about anything else.
Mpho glanced at Annabella who looked like a scared rabbit and turned back to Marika. “Try telling my cousin that,” she whispered.
“Okay, people,” Ms Bennet started. “You all have the programme with the order in which your models should come on the stage. From here we will be going backstage and you should get your models dressed. We start at precisely 7:30pm. Give your music to Roger. We'll only use it tomorrow night though, as the sound equipment failed to turn up. Okay . . . one more thing. I've been informed that some design houses will be attending the show. So far we have confirmations from Paul Munroe, Sister Bucks and Stoned Cherrie. They are looking to hire, so let's give them something to get excited about.”
“Oh, my God!” Mpho whispered into her hands. “Oh, my God, I can't believe it.”
“What? What is it?” Marika asked, frightened.
“Stoned Cherrie! I love their designs. I can't believe they'll be here tomorrow night to look at my clothes . . . my designs . . . Who knows, maybe I can get a job with them.” Mpho turned to Marika. “That would be a dream come true.”
Marika stood up and turned to Annabella and Koketso.
“Come on, let's go work on making Mpho's dream come true!”
* * *
Mpho was last on the programme. She wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad thing. Maybe by then the audience would have already picked their favourites. But at the same time, being last meant that they would leave with her dresses fresh in their minds.
Piet was just before her. In the end, he had found models. They looked like clones of each other â fresh-faced and blonde, outdoorsy surfer types. He'd astonished everyone but himself by finishing his dresses as well. His cocktail outfit was made from flannel with a leather whip as a belt. The two-piece had chaps and a denim vest with a fur collar and leather trimming. Despite the “Hmph” Ms Bennet gave his evening gown, Mpho liked it. It was a red calico prairie dress with deep slits up both sides, nearly to the hip, to reveal the red fishnet-stocking-covered legs of his model who wore spike-heeled cowboy boots. Around her waist was a holster with toy guns. Piet had fashioned the boots himself from a pair of normal cowboy boots and a second-hand pair of spike-heeled pumps.
“At least you know what you like,” Mpho had told him when she saw the three outfits. His work was much better than that of most of her classmates who had no themes to their pieces. They took influences from all over without a real philosophy behind what they were doing. She had to give Piet credit for literally sticking to his guns.
Frazzled designers and nervous models filled the back room. They raced back and forth in the tiny space. The graduate show had been given cosmetology students who were doing hair and make-up for the models. As soon as they were dressed, they moved to the row of chairs set up for that. Most designers let the cosmetology students do what they thought was best but Mpho sat down with the student she had chosen to explain her vision of what her models' hair and make-up should look like. At first Mpho thought the tiny white woman from Benoni didn't understand the effect she wanted but when the job was done she realised that once this woman graduated, the make-up world was in for some serious fun.
Marika looked fabulous in the evening gown, just as Mpho had known she would. In the end, she put her friend's hair up in a messy pile on her head with strands hanging down haphazardly and opted for make-up with an ethereal look. Mpho wanted the Chinese collar to be noticed; she'd put so much effort in trying to get it to stand up that it would be a pity if it was hidden under Marika's hair. Pleased with herself, Marika spun around in front of the mirror and Mrs Smith's fabric flew out around her like balloons on a blanket of air. “I look so beautiful.”
“Yes, you do. Ishmael is going to die when he sees you tomorrow night.”
“I hope not,” Marika joked. “I still intend to marry that man.”
Koketso also looked great in the cocktail dress but something had gone wrong with Annabella's two-piece. Mpho wasn't sure if it was Mrs Smith's constant interruptions or the mess in her head because of Thabang but the jacket was far too tight along the back. Annabella had to struggle to squeeze into it. “Try moving your arms,” Mpho suggested but her cousin could hardly move. “Okay fine, we'll just have to work with it as it is. This is not a disaster, just a small problem. Nothing to get uptight about. It's what dress rehearsals are all about. Just walk and don't worry about your arms. We'll sort it out afterwards; tomorrow night everything will be perfect.”
Annabella nodded her head. She walked to the side trying to practise for the runway, looking really agitated. “Don't worry, everything will be fine,” Mpho told her. This seemed to be her new mantra. “Everything will be fine.”
The dress rehearsal was going well. They were nearly at the end. Mpho and her models stood waiting near the curtain. Piet's last model came back and gave him a high-five. Mpho could hear Ms Bennet's voice announcing her as the next designer. This was their cue. Koketso gave her a smile and stepped out onto the stage, her elegant neck held high. Mpho watched her strut down the runway like a seasoned professional, which she wasn't. This woman was so pleasant and calming to work with that Mpho hoped there'd be some modelling scouts in the audience tomorrow. If they had any sense they'd snatch her up.
Koketso came back behind the curtain. “That was fabulous, Koketso,” Mpho said and her nerves began to settle. You see, she told herself, everything will be fine.
It was now Annabella's turn. She hesitated but Mpho said, “Go, Annie, you'll be fine.” Mpho's cousin looked at her, nodded her head and then stepped onto the stage.
As soon as Annabella began walking down the runway, Ms Bennet boomed into the microphone, “Swing those arms!”
Annabella looked stunned but kept walking. She tried to move her arms in the cramped jacket but Ms Bennet was not satisfied. “Move those arms, I said!”