Suddenly, we find it. The prom dress shop. Right up till that moment, we’re still not sure we’re on the right road, and I for one am completely convinced that we must be wrong. No way would a posh frock shop be situated in such a downbeat place. We’re in the most downtrodden of areas, just outside the bus station. On this pedestrianised stretch, only one shop in every six is still trading. Most are boarded up, desolate and dirty, and despite the day being bright and clear, I’m uncomfortable here. The brightness is that of a grating strip light and the air metallic. People are shabby with eyes downcast. I still can’t believe my daughter, who had always insisted that she would never attend prom, is dragging me here to a posh frock shop. I also can’t believe how excited she is. She’s been non-stop talking and practically bouncing as she walked.
She bounces even more as we open the door. We’re here because her friend Emma has a Saturday job at the dress shop. Caitlin and Emma aren’t traditional friends, and it is becoming more and more common that friends haven’t met in person. In this case, Caitlin and Emma have met. Ish. It was when we went to see Harry Styles at Manchester Arena. We had been drawing pictures in the air with our phone torches and noticed that another group of three about quarter of a mile across the arena, were copying our actions. Then we copied theirs. We did so for hours, and went home feeling as if we’d communicated in an age-old signalling ritual. That evening, one of the girls posted in Harry Styles fan group that they’d been copying flashing phones across the arena. They told the group where they’d been sitting and where we had been. Caitlin replied. ‘That was us!’. And voila, the online friendship of Emma and Caitlin was born. The two girls run to each other and hug and talk non-stop. They know each other so well, but have never been in such close proximity. The shop is all bridal dresses on the lower floor, and the furniture metallic and sumptious. Black and silver. White and ivory. Velvet and steel. But Caitlin notices nothing, just shrieks excitedly with her friend. Emma soon directs us upstairs and we walk up a twisting staircase to the top floor where we were confronted with alien swathes of satin, lurex, taffeta and lycra. Most of the gowns are royal blue, baby blue, peach, beige, red and navy. Three jump out as the freaks in the room: peppermint green, lemon and buttercup yellow. I’m immediately drawn to them as their colours are different though the styles are the same. I wonder where a person would go if they wanted a gown in deep purple or bright orange. Or if they wanted a non-traditional style. Long sleeves. Shorter skirt. High neckline? While non-stop chattering, Caitlin chooses her first 3 frocks and I am led to a set of bright modern chairs (lime, pink, blue and scarlet) to wait. As I sit, I glance at laminated photos of the various dress styles and effects. They leave me cold, though it’s nice here. I’m happy enough to look at the royal blue carpet with occasional spilled sequin, and to wonder what’s happening behind the matching royal blue curtains with silver sequinned stripe. The strip lights buzz reassuringly, so I write and wait. Caitlin and Emma, secreted in the large dressing room, are giggling as if they’ve spent their whole life as best friends. Over this, I occasionally hear the near- whispered conversation of women in the next dressing room. That young woman is apparently a size 4. Size 4! I don’t think my girl was a size 4 even at primary school. Its incongruous. The staff here dress in navy jeans, navy uniform t-shirts printed with the shop’s logo, and flat white shoes, yet they coax young women into tiny dresses and enormous heels in shades of peach and grey and shiny nude. Still, I sit and listen as the curtain rustles and ripples and Emma fits Caitlin into the first of five dresses. There are mild noises of cars outside and occasional shouting of drugged up or drunk men, and I feel as if I’m in another, far more privileged world than that of the outside. The kids now demand so much more elegance than I did at the same age. Tight bodices and floaty skirts. Off the shoulder strips of satin. Fairytale frocks. I sit and make notes and observations of this alien place with its fleur de lys wallpaper and the clean glowing chrome curtain and clothes rack rails. I turn my head. Next to me on the painted white shelf, is a long bent pin, but it isn’t the pin that catches my eye. It’s a box adorned with pink and white stripes and displaying the product name Nudi Boobies – “Reusable Backless and Strapless Silicone Bra”. It takes me back to the days of working at Transformation in Prestwich when I assisted transvestites with their silicone breasts. There it smelled of old buildings and mildew. But this place doesn’t smell of mildew. It smells of nothing but the lightest of floral perfume. Maroon 5 come on the shops speakers. Memories. I love this song and sing along which makes the girls giggle a little more. Caitlin has decided to try dresses only in grey tones. She plans to rainbow colour her hair so wants a simple dress She’s ready to show me the first, and even I feel the sense of anticipation and thrill as the curtains are swept back. The gown has an off the shoulder, tight fitting bodice and floor length A line skirt. Grey. Not metallic, but silvery blue dove grey with a corset back. It looks lovely on her, its satin drapes and sparkling lace bodice, with lace drifting from below the bodice, weeping organically onto the skirt. I can’t fault the dress and how it fits her. Caitlin’s second choice is far simpler but looks equally lovely. It is black and silver lurex with a corset back. Strange how she should choose such tones as she’s such a colourful character. Around me are sumptuous deep cherry red gowns of satin and taffeta, covered in beads reflecting light. My daughter’s usual butch style, her denim coat with blue and white polka dots. 1980s shape. Tan leather, her broken iphone lies on top. Screen cracked in a spider web. Her pink and green charging cord snakes around it. I’m struggling to see her as a fairy tale princess, yet she is clearly not uncomfortable. I’m also no princess, and neither do I feel uncomfortable though I’m scruffy here in my oversized jumper, flat laces ups and old jeans. Now the shop’s stereo is playing disco classics from the 1980s. Wailing ‘Don’t leave me this way’ puts me in a good mood. Caitlin tries another two pale grey dresses. Neither fits properly around her lower half. We discard them immediately. Her final dress is of a dark teal colour: very slinky with a mermaidy look which was not at all flattering. With very little discussion, we choose the first dress she’d tried. As she dresses again in her own clothes I hear the girls talk of the corona virus and how there are now quarantined Chinese people being cared for in the Wirral. Strangely, the location of the quarantined Chinese people is round the corner from another of Caitlin’s friends. We leave after paying the deposit and giving more hugs. Unsurprisingly, my daughter is high as a kite for the remainder of the weekend!