It was one of those shapeless Sundays after an all-night party, when breakfast is a no-show and nobody has the will to do anything except top up a Bloody Mary. Somewhere in the house, men and boys roared in front of football on TV and small children trailed toys and tears through the rambling rooms.
Tess had been surprised to make the cut to the country-house weekend. She’d only met her hostess a handful of times, but on the strange island of motherhood, they had been stranded together with children the same age. Tess’s glamorous new friend was taking a break from being a pop star and instead dedicating herself to sitting on the flagstone floor, upending the cupboards in search of the right saucepan in which to concoct an elaborate pasta sauce for their undiscerning offspring. But the roaring-fire, toast-all-day-in-the kitchen cosiness belied a past gilded in limelight, the spoils of which were scattered carelessly among tartan blankets and window seats like discarded treasure. Somewhere, an iconic photo of the hostess’s glittered face beguiling a crowd a hundred thousand deep at Glastonbury; elsewhere, a William Morris-sprigged dressing room coughed anachronistic, incongruous pop‑star shimmer from its Victorian bones.
None of the guests had ventured beyond the front door all day and the dogs were pining for the woods, so Tess volunteered to forfeit the warmth of their indolent fug for the winter afternoon. She wandered into the dimly lit hallway and rifled the coat hooks, casting her hand through furs and thick-scented wax coats, disregarding a tweed jacket where the moths had summered ravenously. Instead, she plucked down something unidentifiable in black – a long, enveloping cloak. Exactly what the damp afternoon required. Settling the pleats onto her shoulders, she noticed there was nothing as prosaic as a button to fasten at the neck. Rather, trailing from the collar was a delicate chain, at the end of which were two legendary, intertwined Cs. This told Tess exactly what kind of pact she was entering into.
Should she be taking the dogs on a muddy walk in a cashmere Chanel cloak without permission? Of course she shouldn’t. The pairing with her ancient, school-run sweater sealed the blasphemy. But the dogs were hustling her out of the door faster than she could pull on her boots, and despite – or because of – the fact that only the dogs would see her looking more opulent then she ever had before, she hastened outside before good sense could win out over pure romance.
Setting off towards the woods, Tess hooked the chain onto the camellia brooch. In one fiddly clasp she left behind every vestige of herself. As she strode down into the valley, the lights of the house vanished from view like a sunset. In the descending twilight she was bewitched by the cloak. In her mind, the floor-sweeping garment was synonymous with every cliché of mystery and drama Which Brontë or Hardy tragedy didn’t have a black-cloaked woman at its heart, heading for the moors or the heath for some tryst with danger? Like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, Tess had always believed that a particular spell was cast when you borrowed someone else’s clothes. Trailing the persona of the owner (for perfect alchemy, this must be someone more beautiful, glamorous or fascinating than your everyday self), she was also engaging in a kind of one‑night stand, so much sweeter for knowing it could never be repeated.
Tess felt that whenever she chose an item of clothing for herself it relied on so many pragmatic factors… Could she afford it? Did it suit her? Where would she wear it? It was the kind of transaction with tedious reality that left her cold. Whereas borrowing or, even better, momentarily stealing a pair of shoes, a coat, a dress, meant her imagination had to work harder. Tess became not just the heroine in Chanel, but also the star with intoxicating stories and brunette ways so alien to her own blonde tendencies. Like an actor on stage, Tess felt herself become someone else through the threads, the pockets and the ghost of the other woman’s scent.
As night fell, Tess and the dogs returned to the house, where she hurriedly replaced the cloak. In the kitchen the children’s tea was on the table and, glancing at her reflection in the window as she hung up the dogs’ leads, Tess saw that she was wearing her jeans and jumper again – the romance, never really hers to begin with, over as unexpectedly as it had begun.