This story is by Brid Talty and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The days had begun to meld into one another as the isolation progressed. The new routine of morning chores was complete. The internal impatient cry to “get doing!” was being calmed into an appreciation for stillness and relaxation.
Sitting back on the sofa, Sally became aware of the sun’s rays entering through the large window, and the delicious way her bare feet were warmed. With eyes closed, the sensation curiously brought her mind to a time long gone………
The front door of the house opened onto the street allowing the crisp spring air to flow inwards. Sally was seated cross-legged on the floor, observing the industry of her two daily companions. She felt warmth and joy with them, and despite the generational difference, was always an integral part of their little tribe. She was only three years old at this point and knew that Susan and Catherine were older than her parents, but any conditioning about the elderly had not yet formed in her mind. She only saw their beauty and did not look on them with eyes that wondered when………
Catherine sat by the front window, bent over her work. Her curled arthritic fingers feeding fabric, on her black and gold treadle Singer sewing machine. It’s strong metal and polished timber exuded purpose, and yet it was ornate and beautifully crafted. There seemed to be a communion and knowing between user and object, which gave the device animation, and in that union beautiful creations came into being.
On one wall of the room was a full-length mirror, on which a bridal dress hung. Susan, Sally’s grandmother, was sewing on little pearls by hand, creating the shape of a veined leaf from the waistband to the shoulder. Susan and Catherine shared their stories and confidences in muted tones, punctuated by laughter and secret jokes.
Sally knew instinctively that these intimate moments were not for her to partake in. She withdrew to her magical place and with a swift intake of breath, observed the shining straight lined threads of gold extended from the high window to her left onto the ground. Tiny glittering diamonds presented, appearing and disappearing. She raised her hand in wonder, but they eluded her touch. Intangible tiny diamonds of dust were dissipated and disappointingly scattered. Her attention was suddenly diverted back to her ladies.
The pedal and motion of the needle now created a rhythmic sound. This became a percussion accompaniment to Susan singing about the “Three Brave Blacksmiths.” The lyrics told the story of men who were committed to prison for refusing to shoe the landlord’s horses. Mid song, Susan bent down toward Sally and said, “Do you know that one of those brave blacksmiths was Catherine’s daddy!” Sally looked at Catherine, and although her thick wavy white hair obscured most of her face, a slight smile could be detected. Sally felt an uneasy surge of fear. Imagine having your daddy taken to prison! The enormity of it all; the strength of character it must have taken to risk home and hearth for the greater good, in the face of injustice and the corruption of power. This she was to appreciate later.
The ladies continued to reminisce about the days of the war of Independence, over forty years since. They, as young seamstresses, used to sew messages for the volunteers into the hems of trousers. “I wonder what great secrets and plans were in those notes?” Catherine said. They both thought silently for a moment. “Whatever they were, we did our bit, and with God’s help they saved a few lives.” Susan replied. This instilled fear and pride in equal measure in Sally’s young heart. She would later appreciate how the seamstresses had woven their skills with the war effort, just as much as the rifle bearing male counterparts, It was a revelation.
Their conversation and reveries were interrupted on a number of occasions by customers arriving collecting commissions. Time after time, Catherine exited the room to retrieve the appropriate finished garments. Sally was fascinated by the way in which her ladies differed from others. Their coiffed hair, finely tailored tweeds and blouses and of course their beautiful brooches stood out. One brooch, a silver basket with diamond centred flowers. She was frightened to look at the lizard, studded with marcasite and sporting ominous green glass eyes.
Catherine had nine siblings in her family, only four survived to adulthood. One remaining brother was in the USA. His visits were occasional, along with a niece whom Catherine had reared, after the death of her parents. She had emigrated after completing nursing training and was the light of Catherine’s life, her golden girl. There was always excitement for the three musketeers during preparations for the yanks.
Year on year business was always brisk, and included visits from a number of ladies from the area, a valued social outlet for many. Respectable women were not allowed into public houses. The mirth and joy at the recounting of some local event or achievement was infectious. Often celebrations were skittishly washed down with a drop of whiskey. The seamstress was akin to the confessor and shared many secrets. Help which she extended in need, was never known of save between her and the other party.
Throughout the years Sally spent much of her time with Susan and Catherine in both houses. A day came when her mother deposited Sally at a house of a family friend. To her dismay, she had to stay for a few days. As the days passed, she overheard whispers.
“It was a sudden heart attack apparently.”
Slowly she realised that it was granny Susan they were speaking about.
She had died!
It was not the done thing in those days to discuss these matters with children.
Nearly two months passed before Sally’s family moved to Susan’s house. Then Sally eagerly visited Catherine again. She was sitting at the sewing machine in front of the window when Sally entered. Sally was taken aback by Catherine’s silence, and the swift way in which she returned her attention to her task. Heartbroken, Sally wondered had she lost Catherine also?
She sat quietly on the chair at the end of the table closest to Catherine. Slowly she became aware that Catherine’s bent fingers were not feeding the material from one side to the other of the needle. Her head was low, and now and then her shoulders rose slightly with a swift intake of breath, and a sobbing sound. The girl reached out to touch her arm but was gently but quickly shrugged off.
Although Catherine had always been open and expressive with Susan, she was not so with others. Life had demanded of her that she be stoic. Like an opaque covered lantern, from which a glint of light had escaped through a crack, she had revealed a little of her grief to Sally; for which the girl felt privileged. From then on Sally visited daily and they resumed their new rituals and companionship.
Over ten years on, the demand for the seamstress was now waning due to increased transportation to the larger towns and cities, and the availability of ready-made garments. Catherine’s joyful visits continued regularly to Sally’s home, where she shared dinners with the family. One day, Catherine was quiet and sleepy. She unusually asked to go home early. Sally accompanied Catherine, and upstairs in her bedroom, began the ritual of helping her undress for bed. Catherine raised her hand and ordered that she go home. Go on! Sally was dismayed, and wondered if she had offended her in some way, but acquiesced. At two o’ clock in the morning the undertaker knocked at the door, bringing the news that Catherine had passed away. Her sister in law had found her on returning from late shift work, when she checked in.
Both Sally’s ladies were gone, only one musketeer remained. She was in her mid teens at this point, and the world was a very different place. These ladies had been entrepreneurs, soldiers, gifted craftswomen, artists, mothers, survivors. In everything they did they showed courage and compassion to others. Sally was grateful for having known such women, and the way in which they taught her about love. She hoped that she could exhibit some of their qualities in her own life to come.
As she opened her eyes with a sense of gratitude, she saw the bouncing diamonds of fairy dust on the golden strands of light streaming from her window. In middle age now, this memory like those diamonds, was sent by the sun’s rays. It was a blessed gift in isolation, to visit with her friends again. A reminder from them, that all challenges pass, having faith in our capacity to cope. Taking the time to remember, had been missing of late. The reminiscence had enriched the day so meaningfully. In the end, it is the connections we make, and energy we expend on each other in life which are important, nothing else lasts.