Bella had always been easily embarrassed and since childhood avoided the critical glances of other people.
There was no reason for her to do this; she was an extraordinarily attractive 21-year-old and, the more beautiful she became, the more she felt the need to conceal the fact. Unfortunately Bella had no religious commitment to hide her modesty behind. All the veils, hijabs, shifts and ankle length habits were the preserve of nuns, Islam and the Amish.
To make matters worse, she now yearned to go swimming.
On the beach floaty sarongs and tissue thin garments were removed to reveal skimpy bikinis verging on the illegal, even if the wearers were 16 stone and in their fifties. They should have provided enough distraction for Bella to slip into the water unnoticed - or would have done if she had not been over six foot tall. Even in a one-piece swimsuit she would have been far too self conscious, yet wearing modesty swimwear would have probably attracted even more attention. Surely there was some costume she could feel comfortable in without looking like a Victorian matron descending the steps of a bathing machine on Brighton beach.
Bella went online yet again and searched for swimwear that looked attractive, wasn't only available in the US, and came in her inconvenient size. There was nothing. Stunningly attractive, six-foot two tall young women apparently only existed in films or fashion magazines. As much as Bella aspired to be a model, the thought of quick changes in communal dressing rooms filled her with dread. It was something she might have overcome in the right environment, but that profession was already filled with underweight teenagers almost as tall as she was.
Bella continued to secretly search online for modesty fashions when no one else in the insurance broker's office was watching when, one day, up popped something quite unexpected. It was an ornate, gold edged invitation to view a parade of designs which celebrated the female human form by enveloping it in sumptuous fabrics. Linked to it were one or two pictures that triggered her interest. This designer understood Bella's dilemma perfectly in creating costumes for all occasions - including the swimming pool.
Convinced that it was all quite genuine, she hit PayPal to purchase the invitation and was sent a PDF to print out and present at the entrance.
It was a beautiful day to stroll across the immaculately manicured lawn of the Georgian mansion where the longest catwalk Bella had ever seen had been installed. There was seating along its full length yet, despite the admittance fee being in aid of the local church restoration fund, the audience was small. The reason why was explained in the brochure handed to Bella.
Apparently Malcolm Marconitti had an eccentric reputation that deterred high street clothes shops and other fashion outlets from stocking his creations and persuaded the buyers for major supermarkets to block his emails. Even critics and the local press failed to turn up. This was not something the clothes designer needed to worry about. He owned the Georgian mansion and funds to indulge his creative muse. Though it apparently hadn't occurred to him to spend some of that fortune raising the profile of the Marconitti website. Even Bella couldn't believe that he intended to send models wearing this extraordinary, and downright impossible, collection shown in the brochure down that long catwalk covered in fuchsia coloured felt so she sat tight in anticipation. This was more exhilarating than searching for modesty swimwear on the Internet.
Malcolm Marconitti, individualist and creator of the outrageous, strutted out like an effete ostrich to briefly explain his vision of what the world should be wearing. Over his carmine hair was a headdress sprouting ostrich feathers and trimmed with sequinned ribbons fluttering like pennants in the breeze. In a welter of adjectives and adverbs with very few nouns, hands in non-stop semaphore, he explained the inspiration for his creations. Surprisingly, mind-bending drugs were not involved; the eccentric gene ran in the family.
Presentation over, he stepped aside to allow his statuesque models onto the catwalk.
The parade began modestly with those neat, colourful swimsuits similar to the ones Bella had been attracted to on the US websites. She hoped they weren't prohibitively expensive because, given the height of the models, they must have come in her size. They were followed by full-length gowns for the beach which floated like huge butterflies trying to get airborne.
On the other side of the fluttering silk, Bella noticed an older woman glancing in her direction. Her lantern-jawed features and magnetic expression suggested that she wielded authority in Malcolm Marconitti's entourage and may have been scrutinising the sparse audience for potential customers.
Bella forgot about her as soon as outfits, which would have filled the court of Madame Pompadour with apprehension, issued from the marquee, their hummingbird headdresses fluttering as though in triumph at achieving flight. Layered crinoline skirts swirled, dervish like, about the models and tasselled sleeves described satin circles with every movement.
Surely nothing could follow that. Then out came a line of pagoda like creations. Shoulder pads swept up like ornamental ridges were topped by dragons breathing flame. Despite the fire risk, a small devil inside Bella wished that she could wear something like it - however embarrassing, even though there would never be a suitable occasion, apart from Mardi Gras or the circus. She was so overwhelmed by Malcolm Marconitti's extraordinary vision that all thoughts of modesty swimwear evaporated. Bella should have winced when the impractical and outrageous gave way to the downright implausible and dangerous. Instead she was desperate to see more.
The next models did not stride along the catwalk; they floated above it like gossamer kites embellished with sequins. Bella could hardly believe her eyes. Surely Health and Safety - or even Air-sea Rescue - would dash in and put an end to the extravaganza at any moment. But who cared as the fearless models manoeuvred their fantastic costumes several feet above the ground using fans as ailerons.
Bella wanted to be up there with them. Forget swimming: flying through the air like a huge, glittering kite had not been on her list of things to do before reaching 30 - now it was at the top. Despite her innate modesty, Bella knew that she was just as tall and good looking as Malcolm Marconitti's models.
When it seemed as if things could not get any more thrilling there was a commotion from the far end of the catwalk. And it was not Health and Safety or Air-sea Rescue. A delegation of severely dressed men and women was descending on the fashion parade like acolytes of some vengeful deity. If Malcolm Marconitti was gloriously eccentric, these representatives from Hades were conformity at its most narrow-minded. Nothing like this could have happened at any other fashion parade, however provoking the costumes. Had this designer managed, by sheer force of imagination, to arouse the ire of agents dedicated to the suppression of visionaries? Was this a regular occurrence? And, if so, why had such peculiar goings-on not appeared on the Internet?
One of the sinister battalion snatched the frame containing the floatation cells of a hovering model and tried to pull her from the sky. This upset her buoyancy and she ascended higher, taking the assailant with her. They were soon out of reach, sailing towards the neighbouring village as she belaboured the man with her steel ribbed fan.
Malcolm Marconitti, his entourage, and the straight-laced delegation dashed out of the grounds and down the lane after the model and her assailant.
The pair came to rest on the roof of the parish church.
Their pursuers arrived in time to see a furious vicar and congregation spill out from the middle of a baptism to join the extraordinary melee.
Amazingly no one had been hurt.
Despite herself, Bella doubled up with laughter. Who were all these ridiculous people? Was she dreaming?
She felt a discreet hand on her arm.
The lantern-jawed woman she had seen earlier was holding a finger to her lips.
Bella choked back her laughter. 'What is going on?'
'Our visitors are Mr Marconitti's relatives, who believe they have a claim to his estate on the grounds of his insanity, and their legal representatives. Descending on his fashion parades without warning to provoke such situations is one of the ways they hope to persuade a court that he is certifiable.'
'But his clothes are glorious,' protested Bella. 'How could anybody believe they were designed by a madman?'
'It would not be the first time that imagination has been declared a sign of insanity. We would like to laugh as well, but the loss if his remarkable creations due to the bigotry of an avaricious family would not be so amusing.'
Bella was indignant. 'You should start an online campaign to promote his work. The world would soon decide who was right.'
The woman shook her head. 'Mr Marconitti has always resisted publicity.'
They watched as the vicar, obviously familiar with his neighbour's eccentricities, turned his attention to the delegation that had disrupted the fashion parade. With one of their number stranded on the roof and still being belaboured by the model, and an extended family trying to calm a screeching baby, he made it known in no uncertain terms that greed was a venal sin and would be repaid in Hell. Mr Malcolm Marconitti was a good and generous man, and deserved more respect for the worthy causes he donated money to.
While the argument between Church and lawyers droned on, Bella turned to the lantern-jawed woman and asked, 'You don't need another model do you? Women my height attract too much attention to have fun, and working in an insurance office can be soul destroying. Life would be far more interesting if I could fly in one of those wonderful outfits.'
'And this hasn't put you off?'
'On the contrary, it has opened up vistas I would never have dreamt of.'
'I shall recommend you to Mr Marconitti. Just be sure to draw up your own insurance policy before you join us.'