The Time Tailor by Florianne Humphrey

"To sew is to serve” was the first life lesson my parents taught me. I’d chant it to the beat of my footsteps roaming around the city. I'd whisper it into my pillow to soothe myself to sleep.
     Now, this mantra is stitched onto both my brain and a badge on my uniform. A uniform that is meant to give me authority, but when the time travellers come into our shop their raised eyebrows cut me down. 
     Time travellers don't serve anyone. They’re rule breakers, above everyone else. But a rebel wouldn't moan about our inauthentic use of cotton stitching on their Regency ball gloves. Time travellers serve time. Rebel against people, you might end up in prison. Rebel against time, and the universe might fold in on itself, origami-style.
     That’s why there are very strict time travelling rules, some of which are written in the book beside me, Fashion Throughout History: From the Big Bang to the Big Crunch by Rhapso Roumeliotis. My eyes are squinting at a page of instructions on Tudor surcoats. My sweaty fingers are fumbling with a fold of velvet. Rich people clothing is the worst. I don’t like delicate. Give me an order for a medieval peasant tunic, where rips and tears are an expectation, not an accident.
     'Mallory, are you done yet? These need to be delivered in an hour.’ 
     My sister Morgan is mad. Mum tasked her to make 150 bulk-order Roman stolas for Cronus, a huge time travelling corporation. She would rather make this Tudor gown, but Mum wants me to practice.
     Morgan thinks she’s a craftswoman. She’s desperate for the bespoke orders with 50 types of fabric and 20 shapes of button. She sneers at any outfit that needs to look basic or mass-produced. Plus, a big corporation won't send her a personal letter of thanks, but a free agent might. That's what Morgan really wants: a time traveller wealthy enough to invest in their own trips. Time travellers so dazzled by her Lazy Daisy that they hire her as their own personal tailor. I guess, in a way, we're not that different. We're both searching for a way out.
     ‘Almost done,’ I say through gritted teeth. With one hand I press down the fold; with the other I reach for the sewing machine.
     ‘Wait!’ Morgan’s screech jerks my hand. I drop the bolt of cloth and the fold blossoms. I grit my teeth hard enough to knock them out. ‘That’s velour, not velvet.’
     Morgan peers over my shoulder. Behind her, 160 packaged stolas teeter on the counter. For Cronus, we make an extra ten in case one of their time travellers rips or loses their outfit. Mum, like Morgan, sniffs at the big corporations. Cronus time travellers are rushed through training and aren’t paid enough to care about the clothes they wear. Free agents, however, who travel not for work but for self-funded pleasure, are more thorough. This means they notice mistakes from us - and by us, I mean me. Cue the letters of complaint: The crinoline you sent is two inches too wide for my time machine doorway or that heel is not high enough for a 10th century Persian soldier or I asked for 305 pleats on my ruff not 303.
     Morgan and her thoroughness are a complete pain too.
     ‘And? Does velour make a difference?’ 
     ‘Mallory. Of course it does! Velour wasn’t invented until the 1840s.’ 
     Morgan screeches like I printed Ariana Grande’s face onto a band t-shirt for Woodstock, while her raging eyes tell me one thing: Throw it in the bin and start all over again.
I bite back a scream. Since I became old enough to work for the family business, I’ve learnt that the bin is greedy, and it prefers the taste of my outfits to those of Mum, Dad, and Morgan. 
In my nightmares, that bin is eating me instead. In my dreams, I’ve left the bin, and the family business, far behind. When I say far, I mean the distance of a different time. But tailors don’t magically become time travellers. A fairy godmother won’t gift me a ballgown because I’d be the one making it. 
     The bell rings. Morgan swears under her breath. She’s still labelling the stolas, while Mum and Dad are buying materials at the market.
     ‘Can I trust you to talk to a client?’ hisses Morgan. As I walk out of the crafts room to the shop floor, she grabs my arm. ‘I know you don’t want to be here, but we need the money. Be polite and remember: If they represent a corporation, make sure the order is accurate. If they’re a free agent, write down exactly what they ask. They don’t care that an above-the-knee flapper dress hemline is historically inaccurate. They just want to look glamourous.’ 
     I yank my arm away, grab a notepad and pen, and slam the door shut behind me. Morgan, as always, is annoyingly right. With a breadcrumb trail of pleases and thank yous, she can lead clients towards an expensive order and a generous tip. I need to wear my most shining “to sew is to serve” smile. I need those tips for the jar under my bed labelled ‘Time Training’. That jar, and its promise of a different future, numbs me to the pain of inching my fingers too close to the presser foot, stepping on a pin in open-toed sandals, or snagging my hair on the thread take-up lever.  
     ‘Please may I help you?’ There we go, Morgan. I can do polite, even if it’s sweet enough to rot teeth.
     Turning away from our display of Heian period Kimonos, the client stares at me, twisting her fingers nervously. Her smile is so pretty it makes me nervous too. As the daughter of tailors, I have a bad habit of judging people by their clothes. This girl must have some money for a tip – or, at least, her parents do – because her long coat is made from some tough-looking leather. Her shoes are the same, not fashionable but well-made. Their toes are scuffed with mud that could have come from the past, the present, or the future. 
     That is, if this girl is a time traveller herself, and not on an errand for someone else. I can’t imagine her in a time machine. She’s around my age, barely old enough to have started training, and so tiny that she might get crushed by the glass of the captain’s pod as she’s squeezed through one of the wormholes. 
     The client waves some paper in her hand. ‘I’m looking for –’
     ‘- Mum and Dad are out.’ I hold up my own notepad and pen. ‘But I’m happy to take your order instead –’
     ‘- do you know her?’ The girl slides the paper over the counter, between the boxes of Ancient Egyptian clay rings and 1990s British butterfly clips. There’s nothing written on it apart from a name.
     My face goes hot, and my hands go clammy. I stare at the Victorian top hats behind her shoulder. ‘I – that’s – are you sure you’re in the right place?’
     ‘Are you Mallory?’
     ‘Yeah, but probably not the one on your piece of paper.’
     She frowns. ‘Are you a tailor? Do you work here?’ I nod to both questions, which snaps her smile back. ‘Excellent. I can take a break. The hills in this city are even steeper than San Francisco.’
She is a time traveller then. No one has stood on the streets of San Francisco since the early 22nd century. It’s a great destination for deep sea diving. There are some colourful sea creatures suckered onto the Golden Gate Bridge.
     I stop myself from asking a million and one questions about San Francisco. She’ll discover the truth of my boring life if I get excited over something that is probably as ordinary for this girl as making breakfast.
     Instead, I put on my best client-pleasing, tip-squeezing smile. ‘What’s your name?’
     ‘Amberley-Rose.’ She smiles again. I’m glad Morgan is still in the crafts room. She’d have made fun of my blushing over family dinner tonight.
     ‘Can I interest you in something? We’re doing a deal on Aztec cloaks. Buy one, and for zero cost we’ll decorate the second with jade and feathers. Or there are some -’ 
Amberley-Rose holds up her hand. ‘I don’t want anything off the shelf. I want you to make me something.’
     ‘I’ll go and get my sister. She’s better at bespoke. I’m still an apprentice.’ I laugh awkwardly. ‘I make a lot of mistakes.’
     Amberley-Rose leans over the counter, hands gripping the edge. The puff of her hair nods like dandelion. ‘That’s why it has to be you.’ She bounces on her toes. No one is ever this pleased to see me. ‘A few months ago, you helped your dad prepare an order for a 1940s jacket.’
     ‘You don’t want me to make that again. I accidentally over-padded the hips. Luckily no one took that outfit to the 1940s, or the universe might have folded in on itself, origami-style.’
     ‘I did take it. In fact, I wore it to a party in Paris. That’s where your mistake was spotted by Christian Dior and, voilà, the New Look entered history.’ 
     I don’t usually recognise the names of many famous people as far back in history as Christian              
Dior, but we do get a lot of orders for his clothing, and all the clothing that was inspired by his clothing. In the crafts room behind me, there’s a New Look A-line skirt stuffed with pins.
My stomach knots like a loose piece of thread. There must be consequences to breaking the wobbly Jenga tower of time travelling rules. Particularly when it changes the course of history, however cool that might sound.
     I take a step backwards towards the crafts room, and a lockable door, when Amberley-Rose leans forward to reach for my hand. The pressure of her skin against mine shocks me, but I don’t pull away.
     ‘We’re going to start by getting a new outfit.’ Amberley-Rose points at her own jacket. ‘One that is more wormhole-resilient.’
     ‘We?’ My heart thrums like the needle of a sewing machine. It stitches excitement onto my chest. 
     Amberley-Rose squeezes my hand. ‘I’m hiring you as my tailor. And, unlike other time travellers, I take my tailors with me – after a few months of training, of course.’
     I shake my head. ‘I told you. I’m not good enough to be a tailor’s apprentice, let alone a personal tailor for a free agent. Let alone one who actually -’ I can barely say it, scared this is all a cruel trick – a trick of Amberley-Rose, a trick of my mind - ‘Time travels.’
     Amberley-Rose squeezes my hand, and her smile alone transports me out of the shop quicker than any time travelling machine. 
     ‘You don’t need to be perfect. You need to be you. I want to do a different kind of time travelling, so I need a different kind of tailor. I don’t want you to just make clothes. I want you to make mistakes. I want you to make history.’

About the Author

Florianne Humphrey is a Paris-born Londoner proud to call the North East of England her home. A writer of Middle Grade and Young Adult novels, her poetry has been published by Popshot Magazine and her short story shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Working alongside Founder Stuart White and author Melissa Welliver, Florianne supports the growth of WriteMentor, an organisation for writers of children’s fiction. She also co-hosts WriteMentor’s podcast and produces its digital magazine. Her favourite things include travel adventures, artisan cheese, beautiful bookshops and German Shepherds.


Twitter: @flohumphrey3

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