Short Story: The Pink Dress

By Mavis Thorpe Clark

Published in The Sun Week-end Magazine, 1 May 1948

A Sun Prize Winning Short Story - £10/10

See also New Golden Mountain.

Maria Toban was 12 years old. She had a father but no mother, and lived with Aunt Evelyn, her mother's sister, who had reared her since she was two. She only saw her father occasionally when, after a sporadic bout of laboring on some outlying farm he drifted in for a spree at the Moorpat pub. It was sort of spree that the whole township knew about and which made Aunt Evelyn silent and tight-lipped.

It caused the townspeople to shake their heads, too, over Maria, and scold her when she answered pertly. She didn't know she was pert. It was simply her way of striking back at the whispered comments and appraising looks that separated her from her kind. That was why she hated Beryl Stanley when she gave her the pink silk dress. Maria was a full year older than Beryl, but ever so much smaller, narrower, flatter-chested. She hated Aunt Evelyn when her thanks were so profuse.

"Don't - don't keep it!" she begged. "Please, Aunt Evelyn - I couldn't wear it - I couldn't!"

"And why not - if I may ask?" Aunt Evelyn was a tall woman, big-boned, but there was something dried-up about her that revealed itself in the early-fading, uncared-for hair and the straight line of her mouth. She hadn't married because, having been old enough to see the devastating effect of love and marriage on Maria's mother, her naturally cool nature had become unapproachable to the male.

"It'll do you nicely for the summer - quite good enough for Sunday."

"Sunday! Oh - not Sunday!" Maria's dark eyes were beseeching, black lashes swept across smooth, pale cheeks. She was very like her father. Even his sister-in-law, who had such a poor opinion of him and his shiftlessness, had to admit his good looks. She often wished Maria resembled her mother more, even though the poor thing had had such a weak grip on life.

"It's dreadful to be poor," Maria whispered, tears be-jewelling her 
eyes, "and be expected to wear other people's clothes. I-I'd rather 
go naked!"

"Naked!" Evelyn was more shocked by the vehemence of the child than the mind's-eye vision of her nakedness. It sent a stab of fear into the heart of this woman, who knew, if she was not to be lonely in the coming years, she must bind this child's future with her own. That's why she didn't like vehemence in Maria. It would be easier to keep her at her side if she were easy to manage.

She smoothed her stiff white apron. "If you're poor, you're poor," she said, "and most people who are poor stay poor - so you've got to get used to it. I've got the job of bringing you up - your 
father being what he is - and I don't want it made any harder than it's got to be."

"I don't want to make it harder for you," said Maria, in a too-mature tone, "but that doesn't mean I'm going to like wearing Beryl Stanley's dress. Sometimes I hate this place!"

Again the woman felt fear. Her unfortunate sister had met Maria's father in the city, and ever since Evelyn had felt that Moorpat was a haven she'd never leave and she didn't intend that Maria should 
leave it either.

"The Stanleys have asked you there to tea on Sunday," she said baldly, her voice even.

"To tea?" Maria's dark eyes narrowed. "I guess," she said, "they want to see me in that dress - well, they'll want a long time!"

"You’ll wear the dress," said Aunt Evelyn shortly, "when people are good enough-"

"Good enough!" the child's eyes blazed. "I don't want their goodness - or the dress!"

But when Sunday came she obeyed Aunt Evelyn as she had always done. But she hated the feel of the silk against her bare knees and the whispering rustle of it. She had seen Beryl Stanley perk and simper in that rustling silk.

Aunt Evelyn didn't even get up from her rocker in the kitchen window to kiss her goodbye, but she bade her mind her manners.

Maria's lips were tight as she flung out of the kitchen door, but they eased a little as she neared the clump of bushes by the front gate. She knew Aunt Evelyn wouldn't leave her comfortable seat and her knitting to watch her go, and she wasn't even furtive as she picked up the parcel she had hidden there earlier. Then she turned her steps towards the river.

The tension had gone from her now and she walked quickly along the wide, red road, its bareness broken here and there by a gnarled gum.

But her frown reappeared when she saw that the riverbank was not deserted. Of all the, miles of river this boy - a stranger - had to pick this spot. She could have stamped her foot at him.

He looked up from his line as she approached.

"Hello," he said, "I'm fishing - but ain't caught nothing yet."

"You won't," she said shortly, "better fishing up the river."

"Oh-h-I been up the river. They told me this was the spot."

Maria stared at him. He was probably a couple of years older than herself. She very rarely spoke to boys, even the ones she had grown up with. She wasn't tomboyish enough to be pals with any of them, and the low standing of her family ties, her poverty and her quick tongue didn't win boyfriends for her like many of the other girls.

She stared at this stranger now, realising that he was staring hard at her. He had a wide grin that disclosed big, white teeth and his ears stood out a little. His eyes were greenish-grey flecked with brown, and his hair colorless. His other most impressive feature was his tremendously clumsy-looking feet.

"Where're you from?" she asked.


"Nine miles away, eh?"

"Yes - I rode me bike over. She's shabby-looking, but she's a good grid." His eyes rested lovingly on the rusty-looking machine propped against a tree.

"I like fishing," he said. "Do you?"

"Yes." She didn't bother to explain that she liked fishing because it was one of the things that you could do on your own and take a long time over.

"I been all the places round here for miles - fishing," the boy said, "but this is the first time I been here."

Maria didn't answer. She was breathing freely again now. This boy came from so far away that it didn't matter about him. Ignoring him, she disappeared into the thick scrub behind. There, in the little glade where she often laid on her back and looked up at the sun and which she considered the one spot on earth that really was her own, she slipped quickly out of the pink silk dress and into the brown cotton that was Aunt Evelyn's last effort at dressmaking. She left the parcel containing the pink dress hidden in the leaves.

She had to pass the boy again to return across the river. She hoped he wouldn't turn round as she slipped past, but she was out of luck.

"Gee!" he said, "where's your dress?"

"I got it on!" Maria was curt.

"Yeah - but the pink one-?"

"What's that got to do with you?"

She ran then, swiftly, along the bank and across the old creaking wooden bridge. And she kept on running until she reached Beryl Stanley's door, and then was sorry because, being so out-of-breath, she was scared they might think that she had wanted to come and was afraid of missing any of it.

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The Pink Dress The Sun Week-end Magazine, 1 May 1948.

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The Pink Dress The Sun Week-end Magazine, 1 May 1948.

Beryl's mother didn't say anything, though Maria saw her look hard at the brown cotton, but Beryl was openly disappointed.

"Oh, I thought you'd have the pink dress on," she grumbled, I wanted to see if it looked as nice on you."

And Maria answered pertly. "Did you?"

The tea wasn't a lingering meal, though Maria enjoyed the change of fare and wondered if the Stanleys always ate so party-like. Then, after a short, polite game of "hidy" in the garden, she excused herself. She knew that if she waited until near dusk to go home Mrs. Stanley would accompany her and she had to change her dress again at the river bank.

The thought of the boy hadn't crossed her mind until she saw him still sitting there in the same spot.

"Caught a couple," he said happily. "They're just beginning to bite."

"Are they?"

She sped past him into the bushes and changed quickly from the drab brown into the gay pink.

He smiled at her when she re-appeared "Gee," he said, "you do look pretty. That’s some dress."

She stared at him for a moment, then she smiled too, the dimple twinkling in her chin.

"But what's the idea? Changing like that?"

"Reckon that's my business," she said shortly.

"All right - I ain't curious. But I can't understand you wanting to wear that brown thing when this pink one makes you look so different. Gee you look swell in this dress - you ain't the same person."

Maria stared at him feeling a warmth steal over her. No boy had ever paid her a compliment before, or even noticed her. She had never thought of herself as someone who might win a compliment. "You wouldn't want to wear it," she said, “if it had been someone else’s - first."

"A cast-off - eh?" he said softly.

"Yes - and everyone in the town knows it was Beryl Stanley’s. I’ve got some pride - even if Aunt Evelyn hasn’t!"

"Say - why don't you tell me all about it, you’ll feel better." The friendly smile thawed something in Maria's heart. She who had made no contact with the township's boys found herself talking eagerly, fluently. And she knew, despite her aversion to it, that it was the effect of the pink dress. Because this boy had said she was pretty, that she looked a different person, she was different.

"Why don't you get your aunt to leave this place?" and he waved his hand across to the scattered roofs of the township showing through the trees.

"Oh, she wouldn't leave," said Maria quickly, "she wouldn't go away from here - even for a day. I don't think she trusts other places."

"Well, you could always go, you ain't got to stay here - have you?" Maria didn't answer. Vaguely she knew that that was what Aunt Evelyn expected of her.

"You're going to be pretty good-looking one of these days," said the 
 boy, "you ought to go to town and get yourself a good job later on."

"I've never been anywhere!" Maria said bitterly. "I don't suppose I ever will. I don't know anything about other places - Aunt Evelyn never tells me."

The boy looked at her with his green-flecked eyes. "Listen," he said, "you've got to start somewhere. You've never been to Narong, have you?"


"And you like fishing, don't you?"


"Well, you come over there next Saturday - it's twice as big as Moorpat - and I'll show you around and we'll go fishing."

"How - how could I?"

"Doesn't your aunt ever let you out?"

"Oh, yes - sometimes I'm gone all day-"

"Well, that's all right, There's a cream-waggon comes through on Saturday morning - the driver will give you a lift and you can catch him going back in the afternoon. I'll meet you where the cream-waggon pulls up. What about it?"

Maria's eyes were shining. ''I'll be there," she said. "I'll be there all right! So long!"

"Be sure and wear the pink dress," he called after her "not that brown thing!"

She skipped off then, her bundle tightly clutched in her arm but she didn't forget to drop it again in the bushes as she went in the front gate.

Aunt Evelyn was still sitting in the rocker when she entered the kitchen.

She looked up quickly at the girl.

"How did it go?" she asked.

There was color in Maria's cheeks. "All right," she said.

Evelyn rocked gently. She always felt more at ease about things when Maria looked content. And she glad the fuss about the pink dress was over. When money was so scarce it was a godsend to get a windfall like that.

And Maria, who had never thought of the outside world before, thought of the coming Saturday and smiled to herself.

* All the characters in this story are imaginary and have no reference to any living person.