Once upon a time, in a city where the dreams were as big and glittering as the glass towers scraping the sky, a ball was announced to which the rich and the beautiful would be invited. Cards, stamped in real gold leaf and sprayed with scent, were issued. The chosen few rang their favourite designers and instructed them to cancel all other appointments, until that memorable day in May.
In a land far far away, where the dreams were just as big but the chance of achieving them somewhat smaller, Elaro slipped on her flipflops and walked to work. Tuk-Tuks swerved to dodge the holy cows, meandering on their own course, oblivious to the frantic rush of the city waking up. The wall of screens at the TV rental shop on the corner made her pause, even though time was tight: images of a grand building, columns shouldering the impressive frontage. Next, dresses with trains so long they made the cascading red stairs seem small. In her city, already bursting with colours- spices and saris of every shade - the snapshots spoke of something else: a life which would never be hers.
On cue her stomach groaned so loudly that the shop’s proprietor looked at her with pity. The glance was enough to prompt her feet to start walking, and she flicked her neat ponytail of black hair so it swished proudly as she walked past his curious gaze. She might have had no breakfast, but she could still hold her head high. From her purse, she pulled out her swipe-in card, the factory looming up ahead, blocking out the strong sunshine, pulling her into its long shadow. As she clocked in, the heavy door slamming shut behind her, locking out the energetic bustle of the city, the same longing hit her hard as it did every morning: the urge to clap her hands over her ears; to press hard and block out the incessant and repetitive whirr of all the machines at work, a thousand mechanical needles stabbing the cloth, piercing her ears. Instead, she pulled her work jacket from a peg; snapping the hairnet on, she made her way to her work station. Nishi was already bent down low over the dress she was sewing; a neat pile of folded ones, all complete, lay next to her.
“Namaste Nishi,” she shouted her greeting at her friend and workbench partner, knowing she’d never be heard otherwise. “You working overtime?” Elaro nodded at the neatly folded pile of dresses Nishi had already made.
“Got to,” Nishi answered without looking up, shouting over the roar of her sewing machine. “Anay’s school fees.” She ploughed the fabric under the jabbing needle as if each stitch were another coin.
The deafening noise prevented her elaborating, but Elaro knew what she was talking about anyway. Nishi’s eldest son had just turned 14 years old, and if she wanted to keep him in further education, she’d have to pay. Her earnings from the clothes factory weren’t going to cover the fees, hence the overtime. Nishi wiped her eyes, red from all the fibres flying around, then smiled weakly when Elaro sat down, pulling her own swatches of fabric towards her. She pressed her foot on the pedal for the first time that day and the machine started to life. Her eye ran along the track of stitches and it felt like a path, marked neatly in running-stitch, where her mind’s eye could race, back to the gorgeous visions she’d seen earlier. Deftly, she swivelled the fabric for the next row; but in her mind, she saw herself on that red carpet. The cameramen were waiting, one per stair. All lenses were focused on her, waiting at the foot of the staircase, her slipper lightly poised for her first jaw-dropping step. Behind her, attendants from the fashion house fussed over her train, working the heavy lush folds so that the ripples flowed naturally, like waves in water. All was finally ready; she smiled easily and took her first step upwards, glinting in the lenses of a hundred cameras, beaming live to the screens of people everywhere.
“Elaro!” Nishi’s shocked voice cut through her daydream. “Wake up you idiot. What are you doing?” Her friend had actually stopped her machine and was speaking in an urgent whisper: a noise so unusual in the din of the factory that it actually sounded louder than their usual shouts.
“What is it?” She replied, looking about her, thinking that perhaps an unannounced inspection was taking place.
“Your work!” hissed her friend and, not daring to point, she nodded at the fabric Elaro had been stitching. She looked down: the row of stitches ran higgledy-piggledy, like they’d grown legs and decided to dance about, instead of treading a nice neat hem. Hurriedly Elaro looked about her, in case the supervisor was patrolling nearby- no sign of him. In one deft movement, she ripped the ruined dress out from under the sewing machine’s pressure foot and stuffed it up under her jacket.
“What if they do a count?” Nishi asked, “what then?”
“They won’t find out,” Elaro answered with false confidence. “I’ll work double speed and get the bonus for the most dresses made today.” Nishi’s sceptical look was a mirror to how she really felt, but she smiled bravely and resumed her work.
The friends worked hard: no small breaks; eating lunch from their tiffin boxes while seated at their machines. The supervisor frowned at them but said nothing; eating at the machines wasn’t allowed- officially- but then how was the company to meet their quota if they didn’t work through lunch, wiping sticky fingers on their jackets? Inside the factory it was always neon day; the lack of windows made it impossible to tell the time from the passage of the sun or the daylight fading. Instead Elaro relied on her own body clock, energy levels running down as the sun outside dipped. She had worked through her second pile of swatches, and had gone to collect more fabric, when a scream she recognised from her workbench made her drop her armful and run back down the narrow aisle.
Nishi was slumped over her machine as if she’d fallen onto it. All other workers kept their heads bent and sewed on- they knew trouble was brewing and wanted none of it- so Elaro was the first at her friend’s side.
“Help me,” she groaned as Elaro stooped over her, trying to conceal her from the supervisor’s view.
“Nishi what happened?” She asked, although she could already see the answer: her friend’s hand was caught under the machine’s needle.
“I was so tired. I must have fallen asleep.” Nishi shook her head in astonishment at her body’s decision to prioritise rest over her son’s education.
Carefully, Elaro pressed the pedal and the needle retracted. She could see immediately that it had broken and a piece was embedded in Nishi’s finger. Gathering up the dress her friend had been working on, she began to wrap the injured hand.
“Elaro no,” exclaimed Nishi, “we can’t use this!”
“What else are we to use? The dress is ruined anyway.” And she gestured to the blood blossoming through the fabric’s floral print.
“I’m going to make you a sweet chai and then you’re to go to the doctor and get the needle taken out.”
“You’ll be doing no such thing,” a piercing voice said behind them: the supervisor.
“Careless girl!” He exploded so the whole workbench could hear over the drone of the machines. “A broken needle. A ruined dress!” He yanked the makeshift bandage from Nishi’s hand and held it up: a badge of shame. “Both costs will be docked from your wages! I could report you for this!”
“Please, please. I will work doubly hard from now on- I promise!” Elaro almost expected her friend to cling to the supervisor’s leg and plead. She turned away sickened.
“There are plenty of girls, plenty,” he stated, puffing out his chest, “who would beg harder for your job.”
“I know. I know. Please, another chance.”
“One more. Now go and get that hand looked at. You can’t sew if you’re spilling blood everywhere!” And he looked at her injured finger as if it were a cockroach, not a wound needing attention. “And tomorrow, you are here one hour early, to make up for this lost time.”
Nishi hauled herself to her feet and hurried away, before he could change his mind. The supervisor turned to Elaro.
“And you!” he roared, “what sort of work bench partner do you call yourself? - not looking after your fellow worker!” Elaro wanted to say something in her defence but the supervisor stormed on. “You will work overtime and make up her hours!”
She wanted to point out that as Nishi was coming in early tomorrow, her working overtime too was hardly fair, but she knew better than to challenge him. She nodded meekly and sat down to work.
One by one, other workers finished: stretching after so long hunched up over the machine, hanging up their jackets, clocking out. As the last one went home, Elaro felt like a lone ant, left in an empty nest: fabric for a family, the whine of her machine instead of conversations with loved ones. The deserted factory was an unsettling place. During the day, with hundreds of other workers for company, the noise was deafening; now the small sound her needle made echoed in the vast empty space. Fibres, cast upwards during the day, drifted down like dust settling and Elaro felt them coat her, clogging her eyes and nose.
She rubbed them, sneezed; in the pause, time seemed to stand still.
Suddenly, a wind ripped through the factory as if it did have windows and someone had opened them. The gust tunnelled down the aisle, picking up speed and force, until it struck Elaro, bowling her backwards. It caught at the fabric she had been working on, lifting it clear of the machine’s needle, spiralling the material into a column. Elaro stared in amazement at the tornado of air and cloth, whirling aloft before her.
Just as suddenly, it was over. The wind died and the revolving mass floated gently down for Elaro to catch in her arms. She felt her pulse surge as the dense opulence of the golden gown weighed on her; its sleek satiny glow a laugh in the face of the cold neon glare of the factory. The fabric had transformed into a dress: the one she had seen on the screen that morning. Without thinking, she slipped the gown over her head; her work clothes melted away, the factory blurred, and she stood once more on the luscious red stairs.
In her hand was an invitation, her name etched in golden letters. An attendant beamed at her; as she passed him the card, he bowed. As if in a dream, she swept up the staircase: a sparkling fish swimming upstream, beating against the current. The lush train of her dress was a waterfall behind her; the rustle as she moved was music, summoning murmurs of wonder from the spectators who lined the stairs.
In the ballroom, she was greeted by a handsome man who handed her a flute of champagne from a tray; she drank, tasting for the first time ice-cold, bubbling joy. As she replaced the glass, it chimed against the others and the peal rang out across the hall, summoning the other guests. Perfectly synchronised, they glided across the polished floor and took partners. The dance began and she stood at its centre; couples moved gracefully about her, a timeless and elegant waltz. One came forward in dashing white-tie and asked for her hand. She felt panic bubble up through the glow of the champagne- what if he asked who she was? - but smiled through her fear. Gently she unclipped the dress’s train and cast it aside; for a moment it hung in the air, gilding the vast room with light. Then it fell and they danced, whirling in long languid circles over the floor. As they spun together, rising and falling like a wave in time to the music, she felt her confidence rise. Giddy with the dance, the dress, the moment, Elaro turned to her partner for the first time: she would dare to ask him his name; as he turned to face her, she stopped in horror.
“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you working?” The supervisor hissed at her, his voice slicing through his rigid smile. “And don’t think I don’t know about the dress you ruined and tried to hide.”
The champagne seemed to sour in her stomach as he gripped her firmly in the dance’s embrace.
“You will pay for this slovenliness, this idyll day-dreaming!” He murmured in her ear, spinning her round once more.
Desperate, she wished she could pull herself from his tight grip; to free herself from this endless spinning. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw her: Nishi was holding out her train, arms full of heavy light; she reached and grabbed. In one arc, she threw the golden cascade at him. The weight of the fabric pushed him back; over he toppled and the train powered on, felling every dancer, pulsing out across the grand hall. There was no time for relief as Elaro felt the floor turn beneath her; glancing down she saw it transform into a sheet of golden glass. From somewhere deep in the pit of the building, a chime began- axing the floor. Twelve times it rang; twelve times the floor split with a sickening crack. Slipping on the polished surface, she fell through a gash in the floor, tumbling through the crumbling palace. Outside, the building shrugged its shoulders and the temple of dreams sank to its knees.
Slowly the dust cleared. Instead of a red carpet and a dance floor, she saw rows and rows of sewing machines, waiting for workers to come. The factory’s neon light buzzed angrily in the airless space. Elaro looked down; there was no dream dress, only her old work clothes. She ripped the hairnet off, put her head in her hands and wept, for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and what it would never bring.