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EXTRACT FROM THE WINTER DRESS

Jo 2019

The first thing I recall about that day is not the image of the dress nor Bram’s phone call. It’s the man’s clothes, arranged in a neat pile halfway up the beach. A pair of shorts folded over canvas sneakers. A white shirt fluttering in the breeze. The stranger had removed his watch before he entered the water. In the gathering heat, its glass dial blazed like a second sun. Two grim-faced paramedics knelt on the sand packing up their equipment, while a uniformed cop directed curious onlookers away from the poor man’s body, partially concealed under a plastic sheet.

I imagined the fleshy contours and rich, sun-tanned hues of the victim’s face – not the blanched, sunken look he’d worn when the lifeguards dragged him out of the surf, but that earlier version of him, the living, breathing one that had escaped my notice. After arriving at Bondi Beach an hour ago, I’d run as quickly as I could towards the water, paddling hard until I felt the vertiginous pull of the current grip my legs and arms, the sandy shelf giving way to a bottomless blue. I floated, waiting for the sea to work its magic and ease the knotted tension in my neck.

I’d spent most of the previous day hunched over my laptop, attempting to finish writing my book. The past eight months had taught me that it was one thing to write a disser- tation on cultural dress theory and quite another to convert it into a digestible piece of creative non-fiction people might actually want to read. Before leaving my job as a lecturer at the London Metropolitan University, I’d applied for, and been accepted into, a research fellowship program at Sydney Univer- sity. I’d written most of the first draft of my textiles book in a tiny office overlooking the university quadrangle, knocking out twelve chapters within six months in a kind of frenzy. Then, for reasons I found hard to explain to the Dean and my colleagues, my progress had stalled.

I had started sleeping badly, my dreams brimming with voices speaking all at once, as if half a dozen radio frequencies had been spliced together to torture me. Some of the voices I recognised as belonging to people I knew but many of them remained stubbornly vague. They prattled on about the most mundane subjects – what they were planning to eat for dinner, what mischief their children got up to, the kind of house they hoped they could afford once the mortgage rates fell. I’d tried everything to tune them out – meditation before bed, half a Valium before dinner. I even banned caffeine from my diet, although my resolution lasted less than a fort- night (the coffee withdrawals made me so irritable that my aunt, Marieke, insisted I resume the habit). And then, just as suddenly as they had started, the bad dreams lifted. For the past few days, my head had been clear. No more voices, no more headaches. Just peace. The terms of the university fellowship stipulated that the book I was working on needed to be ready for publication within a year. Meeting the deadline would be challenging after my health issues but, if I worked hard, not impossible. I’d pushed myself yesterday to regain some momentum. Now I was paying for it.

My neck had felt poker-stiff, the tendons stretched as taut as piano wire. Every turn of my head sent a ripple of pain shooting down a labyrinth of nerve-endings into my spine. I could have arranged a massage but that would have meant putting my body in a stranger’s hands and making the dreaded small talk, an ability I’d always admired in others since it was a skill I felt I lacked. The beach had seemed a far safer bet.

       I was still floating on my back when the screaming began. A woman’s voice, shrill, panicked. I’ve never been scared of sharks – you can’t be when you dive as regularly as I do. You’ve got more chance of being caught in a rip and washed out to sea than you do of ending up as a white pointer’s lunch. But the screaming rattled my nerves so I started paddling in, using the current to propel me through the surf. As I neared the shore, two lifeguards emerged, hauling something wet and heavy between them, water streaming off their shoulders and necks as they fought the tide. Spectators standing in the shallows watched the drama unfold, their faces frozen as if turned to stone.

I staggered back onto the sand just as the lifeguards laid the man down and began performing CPR. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was obvious to everyone that the man was gone. His profile was a pallid sculpture carved from bleached bone, save for his nose and lips which were purple- tinged: classic signs of oxygen deprivation. A few months after my parents died, I became obsessed with drownings and near-drownings. It was a morbid fascination; something I’m now a little ashamed to admit, although in my defence, I was sixteen and my whole world had been upended by their unex- pected passing.

When I had first arrived in Australia, Marieke was working as an administration assistant in a community art gallery. It was the summer holidays. I was yet to make any friends. Each morning, I followed Marieke into town and she dropped me at the State Library. I spent hours there poring over books and old newspapers and dog-eared magazines, indulging in my strange infatuation. I learned that there are five s tages of d rowning, that clinical death can occur after four minutes of complete submersion. I learned that even after successful resuscitation, some victims continue to experience breathing difficulties, hallucinations and confusion. Approximately ninety per cent of drownings occur in freshwater lakes, rivers and swimming pools. The remaining ten per cent take place in sea water.

People who have drowned and been brought back describe the experience as ‘surreal’. They liken it to sitting in a darkened theatre, watching themselves as actors going through the motions on screen. First comes disbelief – the mind and body struggling for dominance, one refusing to acknowledge how serious the situation is while the other searches frantically for a source of oxygen, rapidly leading to a semi- conscious state. Doctors describe this as ‘the breaking point’ – the moment where chemical sensors inside the body trigger an involuntary breath that drags water into the windpipe. After that comes shock and then the grave acceptance of their inevitable fate: a kind of surrendering.

Swinging my bag over my shoulder, I walked towards the carpark, passing the small group keeping silent vigil over the man’s body. There was nothing to be done. The police would check his identification and notify his next of kin as they had when my parents had passed.

My phone buzzed in the bottom of my bag, snapping me out of my contemplation. I fished it out and unlocked a message from an unknown number and drew in a small breath as a photograph of a late Jacobean court dress flickered to life on the screen. The colour was striking: rich ox- blood, overlaid with burnished copper. The elaborately embroid-ered fabric patterned with pale florets, caterpillars and bees, a common motif signifying birth, death and fertility. There was some obvious damage. A dark stain had turned the laces black, indicating the corrupting presence of iron mordant. Once prized as a fixative that brought out the glorious shades of natural dye, the metal salts could weaken the chemical structure of fabric over time.

I had no doubt that close examination under a micro- scope would reveal tiny holes in the delicate fabric. The damage would inevitably worsen, spreading like spores of mould on

cheese until the entire composition eventually broke down. For now though, the undamaged parts of the brocade shim- mered like fish scales, illuminated by an arc of rainbow light as if someone had sponged the panels with water to bring out the peculiar, dazzling shine of gold thread ribboned throughout the weft. The hem and sleeves were fringed with yellow-starched reticella lace, very fine meshwork which must have taken hours of back-breaking labour to produce. Excite- ment bubbled through me.

Under the image on my phone, the sender had written in Dutch: Wat denk je, Feine?

What do you think, Feine?

Only a handful of people knew me from my Texel days and only one, apart from Marieke, was bold enough to use my childhood nickname. Bram, is that you?

It’s me, he wrote back. I’ve changed phones. Glad this is still

your number! Did you get the photo?

I did! What’s the time there?

A little after 5am. I’m at the clubhouse in Oudeschild. Sem’s here, too. He says congratulations on that piece you wrote for The New Yorker! We bought three copies and had one framed for the display room. You’re famous, Feine!

The article, a watered-down version of my PhD, had been published five years ago to coincide with the opening of an exhibition on Tudor women hosted by a London gallery. I’d argued that the intimate items of Elizabeth Tudor’s boudoir actually belonged to her lover, a woman. One of her ladies-in- waiting, to be precise, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who had made his fortune selling acres of oak forest cut down and repurposed into a fleet of naval ships. The story had been picked up by international media outlets and syndicated across the globe. It was the only article I’d ever written that had gone viral and, looking back, I was woefully unprepared for the fallout. For a few months, my phone was clogged with weekly message from journalists demanding exclusive interviews or armchair historians wanting to discuss their own Tudor theories. Worst of all was the avalanche of hate mail I received from die-hard monarchists who despised the suggestion of homosexuality in any members of the institu- tion, living or dead. The whole experience had left me wary of committing too early to a theory and espousing it publicly before I was mentally ready to deal with the outcome.

Tell me about the dress, I wrote.

We were diving a wreck yesterday out near De Ezei – a galleon, a big old grandmother ship. She’s usually under a layer of mud but a storm uncovered her. Blew all the mud and sand away. Nearly blew us away! There was a sealed chest on the upper deck. We had to break it open with a knife. Then the wind picked up again and the visibility turned to shit so we grabbed everything we could and hauled it back to our boat. Sem unrolled the fabric and we realised it was a dress. We couldn’t decide what to do with it. Then somebody remembered your article. I haven’t even shown you the other stuff yet. Stand by.

I watched three tiny circles revolve while more photos loaded. The first was a 17th-century lice comb on a black back- ground, the blond wood purled with knots, the edges needled with sharp, uneven teeth. I’d handled a similar one years ago in a lab in Oxford, cleaning the wood with a fine sable paint- brush before prising the desiccated bodies of centuries-old lice out of the tines. Next came a four-sided drawstring purse, the exterior worn so thin that the hard leather scaffold showed through the patched velvet like exposed cartilage. A woman would have tied those purse strings around her waist and stored her personal items inside – a sewing kit, perhaps, or a herbal pomander, something to ward off the foul stench of the city streets. The final image revealed a scattering of crimson carpet fragments piled up beside a damp leather book cover. The book’s pages had long since dissolved, leaving just the fragile bindings. A heraldic crest was stamped on the leather, but the camera had failed to capture the finer details so all I could make out was a blurred shape resembling a sword or a staff hemmed inside a scrolled cartouche.

I waited but there were no more photos, only a text message. So? What do you think of our treasures?

I hesitated for exactly ten seconds before pressing the tiny telephone logo. Bram picked up on the second ring. His voice was warm and familiar, despite the oceans and years separatingus.

‘Feine! Or should I call you Doctor Baaker?’

 

 

The Winter Dress

‘From a few shimmering strands of truth, Lauren Chater has spun an intriguing story of love, loss and fulfilment.’ Pip Williams, bestselling author of The Dictionary of Lost Words

Two women separated by centuries but connected by one beautiful silk dress. A captivating novel based on a real-life shipwreck discovered off Texel Island by the bestselling author of Gulliver's Wife, Lauren Chater.

Jo Baaker, a textiles historian and Dutch ex-pat is drawn back to the island where she was born to investigate the provenance of a 17th century silk dress. Retrieved by local divers from a sunken shipwreck, the dress offers tantalising clues about the way people lived and died during Holland's famous Golden Age.
 
Jo's research leads her to Anna Tesseltje, a poor Amsterdam laundress turned ladies’ companion who served the enigmatic artist Catharina van Shurman. The two women were said to share a powerful bond, so why did Anna abandon Catharina at the height of her misfortune?
 
Jo is convinced the truth lies hidden between the folds of this extraordinary dress. But as she delves deeper into Anna’s history, troubling details about her own past begin to emerge.
 
On the small Dutch island of Texel where fortunes are lost and secrets lie buried for centuries, Jo will finally discover the truth about herself and the woman who wore the Winter Dress.

Praise for The Winter Dress
Vivid, expansive and richly imagined, The Winter Dress weaves together a fascinating historical mystery and an uncompromising portrait of the possibility and price of female autonomy with remarkable and deeply affecting results.’ James Bradley, author of Wrack

'Wrap yourself in Chater's prose. The Winter Dress is a captivating tale of discovery and obsession by one of Australia's very best historical fiction authors. Absolutely essential reading.' Melissa Ashley, author of The Birdman’s Wife