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The shop was dimly lit, the discrete lighting draped with red scarves giving a glow to the whole room which complemented the slightly musty smell underlying the incense burning behind the counter. Music played from speakers somewhere hidden in the dark corners of the store.
Karen's hands trailed through the rails of dresses as she half-heartedly picked her way through the merchandise. Her mind was on other things, she wasn't even sure why she'd come out shopping - had just left the house enveloped in a daze of jumbled thoughts and had wandered the streets and alleys, finally finding herself in this little boutique.
She pulled out a dress and held it up to the dim light. Like the scarves covering the lamp-shades, the dress was also red, her favourite colour. She decided to try it on and turned to ask the disinterested looking shop assistant who pointed her in the direction of the tiny curtained area at the rear of the cluster of clothes rails.
Karen looked at herself in the mirror. Her bruised face looked back at her accusingly. Trying not to make eye contact, she glanced at her image. The red dress was a transformation of her usual dowdy self. She remembered how she'd felt wearing Linda's clothes at the party and smiled to herself vaguely.
'Would I ever have the nerve to wear this?' was the question she asked herself.
The dress clung to her body like a glove, showing the outline of her figure. It was short, stopping midway above her knees. Karen turned around, looking at herself from every angle.
'No, I could never wear this,' she decided as she turned. She peeled the dress off again and put her own skirt and blouse on. As she left the booth, she noticed the same dress again on a mannequin in a far corner of the shop. It certainly was a special thing. Hesitating only for one moment longer, she slung the dress over her arm and went back to looking through the clothes on the rails.
There was nothing she liked as much. She was still trying to make up her mind when a group of young women came in, giggling and bustling through the clothes rails. They were picking out items, holding them up and chatting together in loud voices, confident and sparkling as they found the latest fashions.
Karen stood in the corner, trying to melt into the wallpaper. 'Why do I always feel like this around people?' she wondered to herself, trying to hide her face as she moved towards the door. She was in the street before she realised that she still held the dress over her arm and was about to go back in when the door opened and the shop assistant was standing there in front of her, eyes like steel.
'You haven't paid for that!' the woman accused Karen.
'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to leave with it.' Karen thrust the dress towards the shop assistant.
'Aren't you buying it then?' the woman barked.
'Um, oh no,' Karen stuttered. 'Yes. Yes, I think I will. I just came out for some fresh air.' She marched back into the shop, something inside her giving her the courage to return and face her fears.
The other customers hadn't even noticed, all still busy finding clothes to suit themselves. The red dress was twelve pounds, far more than she’d have spent normally, but she found the money in her purse and paid the shop assistant without further thought.
Karen was half way down the High Street before she realised that she'd spent most of the housekeeping money. She looked in her purse again. Only five pound notes left and she needed to get food for the next few days, as well as pay for her bus fares to work. She stood outside the butcher's shop, looking in at the display, then went inside and smiled at the butcher as she ordered half a pound of minced beef and some sausages.
'Lovely black eye you got there, Miss,' the butcher laughed. 'Walked into a door, eh?'
Karen smiled uncertainly back at him. She felt tears welling in her eyes as the butcher weighed the mince and wrapped it in white paper, then took a string of sausages, twisting them into a bundle, before wrapping these also.
'That'll be sixty five pence, my love,' he said. 'Sure you don't want a nice piece of rump steak to put on that eye?'
'No thank you,' Karen mumbled as she handed him a pound note. She took her change and the meat and left the shop.
An hour later, laden down with carrots and potatoes from the greengrocer, Karen was walking back along the street to her home. She was relieved to reach the house and let herself in with a sigh of relief. So many people had given her looks as she passed. Some were sympathetic, knowing looks - others were openly amused and someone had even shouted across the road at her, 'Where'd you get that shiner?'
Karen kept her head down and hurried home.
She dumped the shopping in the kitchen and sat down at the table in the sitting room, thinking about the day. She stared at the sky through the window, trying to make some sense out of her life.
It seemed like only a few minutes later when she looked up at the clock. It was nearly five o'clock and she'd been sitting there for four hours. She knew she hadn't been asleep. 'What's the matter with me?' she thought as she reluctantly shook herself and got up, going into the kitchen to put the shopping away. She took the meat from the carrier bag and noticed something screwed up in the bottom of the bag. It was red. Karen pulled it out to reveal a short dress of the kind that she would never wear, and it was stained with blood from the wrapped meat. Fear flickered in her mind as she screwed up the dress and pushed it into the kitchen bin. She shook away the fear and began to peel the skin from an onion, chopped it into small pieces and threw it into a pan with the mince.
Karen watched the smoke rising from the pan, and wiped the onion tears on her sleeve.