Darning & darnation

There was a sitting room in England, once, with a serviceable hearth. It was small, and in a house that was small. There was a small couch, and a couple of wooden chairs, both mended. Books piled everywhere, as normal. The walls were of a green horsehair plaster, one hundred and fifty years old; and a beam across the ceiling, supporting joists, had carved into it a favourite proverb: “The Tygers of Wrath are wiser than the Horses of Instruction.” This was slightly crowded to the right: I had botched the letter-spacing.

Often I think back on it: this workman’s cottage in Vauxhall, London, demolished thirty-nine years ago. I have mentioned it before: my happiest domicile. It was a portion of paradise, and should I ever go to gaol, I hope it will be an antiquated dungeon free of tacky modern fixtures, to remind me of this place.

One could build another just like it, I suppose, but then another century or more would be needed to acquire the patina. The wide floorboards, the short stairs, would require a century of walking on, for the living texture to be impressed; linoleum would have to be kept off it. The kitchen could be spared any “convenience,” such as a refrigerator, by the simple expedient of forbidding wires and plugs. Instead, an old cast iron cooker and its soot. Electric light would spoil everything: lanterns and candlelight cast the right glow. The sun streaking through mullioned windows in the glory of the day. Toilet in the yard; tub hanging from a spike in the stone of the pantry; running water through a single pipe, deliciously cold. Heavy brass tap; the jolt when it is closed.

But now I think of the darning, and therefore of a young lady, who came to visit me from time to time. She was from the West Country, mildly hippiesque. I had a darning egg, needles, threads, and yarns, but was myself no good at darning. What I did would unravel in a few days. But this lady, by name Betty, could repair not only socks, but stitch or patch any sort of clothing, and did so in subtle patterns, that adorned the fabric while gradually fading in. In return, she wished to be brought tea, and read one of my silly stories, or from my commonplace anthology of verses.

We were not lovers; we were friends. Somehow that was possible in those days, before everything had to be graphed, pointed, and delineated. We had little in common; I utterly adored her. Born to embroider; hating nothing except waste.

She could knit, of course; also draw, and paint; and to my lasting regret I have somehow lost the small painting she gave me the last time we parted, those many years ago. She was colour-blind, and produced as a consequence the most ingeniously counter-intuitive effects in water-colour. The picture was of two goldfish, turning together under water lit by a full moon. A turquoise that was quite unearthly.

Married, soon after: she went off to California. I went back to Asia, to work as a hack again. Decades have passed since the last handwriting passed between us, in envelopes with stamps and exotic cancellations. But I still have a photo she once enclosed, showing the husband I never met, and two wee childers, all bound together in a human jumble. The little girl in that picture has Betty’s face; her pointed nose, her merry squint, the joyful sparkling eyes. Somewhere life goes ever on, out of sight and comprehension.

My clothes are disintegrating again: socks, shirts, and coat; holes in pockets, and torn linings — time rubs it in. I feel helpless today. Yet I have what could serve as a darning egg, needles and threads, some canvas that could be cut for patches. None of this stuff has been touched for years.