'You'll look great in these.' Linda threw a pair of black trousers onto the pile of clothes already covering the bed. 'Or this skirt. It's one of my favourites.'
'I don't know where to start.' Karen was overwhelmed. 'You've got so many lovely things.'
Linda pulled a range of colourful tops from her wardrobe. 'I think red would suit you. Try this.' She held up a silky red polo neck top.
'I'm not sure about red.' Karen was embarrassed about trying on Linda's clothes. The skirt was a maxi, not the knee length that Karen was used to wearing, and the trousers were wide and impractical.
'Come on, you'll never know until you've tried it on.' Linda was persuasive and soon Karen had pulled on the trousers and the red top. A stranger looked back at her when she turned to the mirror. She remembered dreaming about wearing trendy clothes when she was younger but had never had the confidence to buy something like this.
'You look fantastic!' Linda was beaming at her. 'Well, say something.'
'They’re lovely.' Karen hesitated. 'Are you sure it's O.K. to borrow them?'
'Of course.' Linda pulled on a mini dress. 'Now, get your make-up on and we'll get going.'
'I don't usually wear make-up.'
'Sit here,' ordered Linda, ushering Karen to the bed. 'I'll do it for you. Come on, this is party time.'
'I don't know.'
'You can't go out without make-up on.'
Karen glanced at herself in the mirror again, sighed and sat on the bed. 'Oh, well, in for a penny,' she laughed and put herself into Linda's expert hands.
Karen watched Linda's reflection as she rummaged through the contents of her dressing table, carefully laying out an array of make-up before them.
'We'll start with a good base,' Linda advised as she squeezed a dollop of the pale brown mess onto her fingers and began to gently spread it on Karen's face. Karen looked in the mirror and saw herself looking back behind a pale, blemish-free mask.
'Now, for the colour,' Linda said, reaching for green eye-shadow. 'Close your eyes.'
Karen felt the brush-strokes on her eye-lids, feeling awkward at the closeness of the other woman, and the intimacy of her touch on Karen's face.
'Don't look yet,' Linda said as she brushed Karen's cheeks with a blusher and painted her lips.
Karen felt slightly sick at the smell of the make-up mingling with Linda's own perfume and the warmth of the room.
'There.' Linda stepped back. 'Now you can look.'
Karen opened her eyes. A transformation of her former self looked out at her from the mirror world.
'I'm ready,' she said.
Loud music invited them into the crowded and dimly lit room. The darkness was broken by red, blue and green flashing disco lights. Cigarette smoke mingled with the aroma of incense swirling in the coloured beams of light.
'Hey Karen, you got here then?' John was shouting in her ear above the sound of The Rolling Stones. She smiled nervously back.
'I'll get you a drink, in the kitchen.' He grabbed her and led her through the moving crowd. The touch of his hand on her own shocked her. She looked around for Linda, but she was already lost, making a bee-line for Andy who was on the far side of the dancers.
'What do you fancy?' John was asking. 'We've got bitter, lager or Liebfraumilch.'
'Liebfraumilch please.' Karen leaned against the sink. She noticed a stain on the ceiling.
He handed her a paper cup. 'There you go.'
'Thanks.' Karen tried to relax as she sipped the warm wine. She looked out at the crowd in the corridor. A couple of girls pushed their way through the door, laughing loudly.
'Let's get out of here.' John pushed her into the hall. They stood for a few moments. Karen tried to think of something to say. Her mind seemed to be a mess of nothingness. She smiled nervously.
'You look great.' He returned her smile with his own quirky lop-sided grin. 'Is your old man coming?'
'Peter?' She had almost forgotten him. 'No, I don't think so. He had to work late.' She laughed, wondering why she was making excuses for him.
'Never mind, I'll dance with you if you like.' He was holding his hand out invitingly. 'Come on. Please.'
Karen hesitated for only a moment.
'Alright.' She smiled, taking his hand. He whisked her back into the noisy moving mass.
Karen took another gulp of her wine before abandoning the paper cup on a window sill. She felt herself dancing, self-consciously at first then as the alcohol began doing its work realised that she was actually enjoying herself. She remembered dancing in her teens and how it had felt. Gradually the tensions slipped away and she felt herself letting go and really dancing. Allowing her body to feel the rhythm, listening to the words, singing along with those she knew, getting louder and louder as her inhibitions dropped away, Karen was dancing with her eyes closed, the whole world around her no longer mattered.
She opened her eyes as the music came to a close. John was still there, reaching out to hold her. He was looking at her and smiling.
'You enjoying yourself?' His arm draped around her shoulder as he drew her towards him.
'Yes!' She realised she was shouting, even though the music had stopped. 'Sorry, I'm getting carried away.'
'You were amazing. Don't apologise for yourself - come on.'
Another album had been put on the stereo and Stevie Wonder's voice was belting out. They danced, Karen completely lost in a world of fun as the time flew by.
They were dancing closer now, Roberta Flack's words “killing me softly” floating in Karen's head. She felt so happy, but there was still a deep rooted feeling of anxiety somewhere trying to surface. She pushed it away.
'I'm not doing anything wrong. Peter could have come,' she told herself. 'I would have loved to have danced with him like this.'
John's body was so close, and warm. No tension or expectation came from him to do anything other than moving together to the music. She leaned her head towards his, their cheeks touching, briefly at first as she pulled away, then she relaxed in his arms and savoured the roughness of his face against hers. This was a feeling she'd never experienced before. With Peter there was always the fear that she was not quite doing the right thing, that she would somehow let him down.
Thoughts of Peter broke the spell.
'I've got to go.' Karen glanced at her watch. 'It's nearly eleven. I'll miss that bus.' She looked around desperately. 'Where's Linda? I've got to get my things from her room.'
'It's alright, we'll find her. But you'll not get that bus now.' John reached to touch her arm. She flinched.
'I have to go.' Pushing past several people in the doorway, Karen went out onto the footpath in front of the hostel. ‘Has anyone seen Linda?'
'She went to her room with Andy, about ten minutes ago,' someone called out.
Karen ran down the path and into the other block of rooms. As she flew through the door, she noticed John was following her.
'It's O.K. Karen,' he was saying. 'I can take you home.'
'You can't!' The thought of arriving at home in John's car was ridiculous. How ever did he think she could explain that away. 'No. It's alright. I'll get a taxi or something if I miss the bus. But it might be running late. I may still catch it.'
'It's never late,' he said. 'Not the last one. The driver sits there from ten to - just waiting to leave. He won't wait past eleven.'
Karen was already banging on Linda's door, panic rising with every moment wasted. The door opened.
'Alright love?' Linda looked worried. 'Come in.'
'I need my stuff. My bag. I have to get home.' She ran into the room, hardly noticing that Linda was in her bathrobe and Andy was sitting on the bed with the quilt draped around him. She found her uniform and stuffed it into her bag before hesitating, taking in the scene.
'I'm sorry,' she blushed. 'Can I give you back your clothes tomorrow?'
'Of course. How are you getting back,' Linda asked. 'You can stay here if you want.'
'No. I need to get home. I'll get a taxi.'
'I'll give you a lift Karen.' John stood in the doorway. 'Sorry you two. I'll see that she gets home safely.' He looked at Karen. 'Look, I can give you a lift to Fareham, then you can get the bus from there. No one will know the difference,' he added.
'I suppose.' Karen was still unsure. 'Thanks.'
'Well come on then, let's go.' He grinned at Linda and Andy. 'See you two later,' he said as he swept out of the room.
'Thanks for tonight.’ Karen smiled at Linda and followed him to the car park. He held open the door as she got into the passenger seat of his old Morris Minor. It spluttered into life after several attempts with the choke fully out and soon they were on their way through the winding country lanes to Fareham. They caught up with the bus and even managed to overtake it when it stopped to let off several people at the railway station, arriving at the central bus depot with time to spare.
'Here we are then, all safe and sound,' John said.
'Thanks, John.' Karen felt so relieved and just a bit silly.
‘What time's the bus to Gosport?’
‘It goes at eleven thirty.'
'Plenty of time then. You've got about ten minutes.'
They sat in silence for a while.
'Thank you.' Karen felt lost.
'Yeah, you said that already. It's nothing.' He took her hand in his briefly, then dropped it. 'Sorry. I keep forgetting you're married. This is weird.'
'I had a good time tonight,' Karen said.
The bus was pulling into the bay.
'I've got to go.' Karen fumbled with the door handle. John leaned over to help and as he did, she could smell the closeness of him, a mixture of tobacco and incense, the heady aroma of a happy memory.
'Karen.' He spoke gently as he leaned towards her. She turned and their lips brushed together for a moment so brief that later it was as though she'd imagined it. Karen was out of the car, clutching her bag to her chest and on the bus before she could think about anything else other than getting home.
A note on the kitchen worktop greeted Karen. The house was dark and silent, the only words were those written on the note:
Gone clubbing with mates from work.
Don't wait up.
Karen stood looking at the words, wondering why she felt so afraid. She left the note and went upstairs to bed, catching a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror as she passed the bathroom. Still dressed in Linda's clothes, her face made up, she looked at herself. Who was that woman in the mirror? She smiled at herself. 'He's not going to beat me. Not any more,' she said to her reflection.
Sitting on the bed, Karen began to clean the make-up from her face. First the lipstick, then the black mascara and green eye-shadow. Finally, she wiped the blusher from her cheeks, watching all the time as the new Karen gradually slipped away once more. She sighed and went to bed.
Peter came in late. The sound of his stumbling around the bedroom, bumping into the dressing table and the bed woke her. He was too drunk to care whether she was awake or not so she pretended to be asleep until she heard the safety of his snores. She relaxed, lying awake, thinking about the day's events.
So much had happened. She couldn't get the thought of the party and dancing with John out of her head. An excitement fluttered somewhere inside her which she tried to push away as feelings of guilt overwhelmed her.
She turned her mind to her work.
First there was Florrie and her Christmas card. Karen made a pact with herself to stand up to people like Marion.
'She seems to be in the job just to be cruel,' she thought.
Then there was Evelyn. Why had she reacted so violently? Karen couldn't work it out. There was something about the woman. She felt comfortable around her even though Evelyn didn't seem to feel the same. She was determined to find out more about her, and to try and work on breaking down those barriers.
Eventually she slept.