The Sewing Machine
The Sewing Machine
As a young man, I was fond of walking holidays and particularly liked the wilds of Scotland, covering vast distances by foot. They were pretty much deserted then, and every year I’d spend a couple of weeks with the Duchess of X in Perthshire. It has to be an X, I’m afraid, or you might look her up. I believe she is still living, wrapped up in her ancestral tartan that comes all the way from Botswana.
She was an older woman with a table of young admirers enticed by her considerable personal charms as well as her venison in Cumberland sauce. We’d do jigsaws every evening. Usually of a geisha girl with her hair in a black bun full of cocktail umbrellas. I’d been given the sky to work on. Not a puff of cloud - just a great block of blue. Absolutely hopeless. It was one of her obscure tests—could I deal with the blue abstraction, the undifferentiated sameness—would I look into reality a little harder and see those alterations in air pressure where things start to unravel? The evenings were idyllic - her pug, Jacob, wheezing on my lap, while she sorted out the jigsaw into all its different colours. And then my idyll curled up at the corners.
The Duchess found a new admirer. She no longer dropped her dressing gown cord in front of me on her way to bed, presumably she dropped it nearer the room of her new suitor and he had to return it. I challenged her and she told me it was none of my business. She had something with this fellow but still looked forward to our evenings together. I made myself unpleasant. She asked me when was I ‘pushing orff?’ She only really had two expressions. People either popped orff or pushed orff. I was to do the latter.
I wondered if her new man would have more luck with the sky than I’d had, and in a fit of pique pinched a couple of pieces. The thought preoccupys me to this day: did I in fact prolong their time together?
I decided to walk twenty miles to a little village where I could pick up the branch line and then catch a train back to Edinburgh. I chose the old Celtic road that ran past a ruined chapel where non-conformists used to say their prayers by moonlight. But the road was virtually non-existent, great puddles of water, and I ended up stomping across a huge spongy moor, and my boots sunk deeper and deeper into peat. I felt tired, as if covering a much greater distance. It was growing dark and I began to panic in the classical sense. The rational mind alone in the wild is stupefied by the great God Pan. Pan God of Panic. You may have experienced it too. A sudden apprehension of solitude with silence growing like thunder while the forest tingles its nerve endings.
I really panicked. I had an awful sense of time running out. A mist rolled over the Douglas firs and it blotted out form. Like a paintbrush stirring cloudy water. I didn’t think of turning back. I thought how much I liked the Duchess and that bloody Geisha girl with her shining face and smile, painted like porcelain. I felt I wanted to scratch at the surface of existence, get my finger nails under the enamel, and without thinking I dug my hands in my pockets and grabbed the jigsaw pieces and scraped the paper off with my thumbnail. I may add that there is no history of mental instability in my family. None whatsoever. Unless you include a maternal Uncle who built doll’s house furniture for the little people, staircases stretching through ruins and ballrooms hung with mirrors and tiny chandeliers.
I was worried I wouldn’t find an inn in the next village. There were dark shapes moving in the distance, cattle stepped out of the mist. I saw a light, a little speck like a perfect crystal, which grew brighter. It was travelling towards me at about twenty miles an hour. The light travelled evenly, it didn’t jolt or dip in the numerous hollows - it followed the line of the invisible road. I listened out for the sound of an engine but everything was quiet. Cushioned by heather. I felt that the paint somehow had been reapplied to the porcelain.
I told myself it was a cyclist, a squirrel on a penny farthing, so many absurd ideas bubbled up, the glimmer even suggested an engagement ring being held out for show. It was none of these things. An antique Rolls swung into view. Headlamps picked out the gorse, and moths danced in the down-turned beams. Such antique seeming moths! Large like fabric flies all glittering. I thought, if I stand to the side perhaps I could thumb a lift.
The car was grey with an iron grille. Clusters of badges were stuck between the bars and more of those lovely moths. I think there was a coat of arms. I buttoned my jacket and flattened my hair with the palm of my hand.
Sombre in dove-grey uniform, dove-grey hands resting on the wheel, the chauffeur strained pinprick eyes into the dark. It was unclear whether he’d seen me. He was clean shaven but the stuffing had burst out of his cap. I admired the smoothness of the engine, completely soundless save for a very faint whir like an insect’s wing. The car had slowed down and I stepped to the side because I wasn’t sure if he could stop.
I’ll try and explain the effect of those headlights and the chauffeur’s concentration. If you look around your bedroom at night perhaps that strange magic happens there as well when, in between waking and dreaming, the wall is suddenly awash with car lights and diminishing orange grids, patterns everywhere. Normal everyday magic but striking for a moment and before the brain catches up – inexplicable.
In the back was an Edwardian lady with a wonderful hat of fruit and stuffed birds. It was a preposterous hat, heavy with glass grapes and cocktail umbrellas - all sorts of souvenirs supported on her slender neck. Her face was veiled, a black veil with white spots, but her hands. They turned the handle of a black Singer sewing machine, and the car’s engine was turning over in response to her winding. The landscape, the car, the scenery all seemed to unfold from her sewing machine and I was caught up in the lady’s rhythm walking alongside the car. And what poured out on her lap was this chequered fabric full of rivers and steeples, winding roads, barns, deer standing behind hedgerows.
The next thing I knew, the car had stopped, and the chauffeur with this horizontal smile, which just stretched a couple more inches to prove it was a smile, helped her out of the car. He fetched a suitcase from the trunk which he snapped open and inside was a wind-up gramophone.
We began dancing in the headlights with these crazy moths hanging in the blackness as if they were painted on gauze. Her hands were frozen and she clutched onto my shoulder with her fingers. They pinched at my skin which I found comforting. They were excavating my jacket and feeling the texture hungrily like a blindman. They must have torn through the fabric because I felt little welts forming on my shoulder. I looked sideways and then noticed her fingernails. Clogged with bright blue pigment. And I felt ashamed, as if I’d discovered her secret, some terrible breach of etiquette. I twirled her round all the more but I felt the chauffeur’s eyes upon me.
‘Do you paint?’ I asked and she grew weightless; at that moment the chauffeur stopped the record and shut the suitcase up in the car.
‘Madam is tired.’
‘Don’t,’ she said, ‘please don’t. There’s no need for us both to be unhappy. Shouldn’t he come with us? If we keep the windows fastened tight.’
‘If he keeps walking in the direction he’s headed, he’ll be all right.’ The chauffeur held open the car door. ‘We have calls to make across the moor. Good night.’
Her hat bobbed slightly, and the glass fruit and stuffed birds quivered on the ends of wire stems. Her white hand quickened on the handle of the sewing machine and the car slid past. I watched it for a while, and the smoke puffing out of the exhaust, smoke that mingled with mist and made the cattle and distant lights seem faint.
I found himself at the village of R: two pubs, a church and school crouched at the bottom of the valley. Drinking my pint, I quizzed the landlord and the two old regulars. They were pretty far gone mixing whisky with their bitter. Did they know of any eccentric landowners who drove about in an antique roller? They looked at me and shook their heads - and then one of them stared hard at the clock and I noticed specks of paint on the backs of his hands. He began turning an imaginary handle but I couldn’t be sure whether he wasn’t suggesting I was a bit gone in the head.
I find myself now when I’m alone in my bedroom and I’ve been here for many many years (a creature of such bad habits and superstitions) that I begin turning that handle, slowly, slowly, lost in the texture of that memory. In the candelight the shadows multiply, swarming all over the walls, and the walls themselves have become liquid and unstable giving way to fresh air and the scent of heather. I feel queasy and wonder whether the Duchess has completed her jigsaw but that is an impossiblity. Through the open window creeps this mist, this unmaking mist that dissolves the integrity of the walnut desk and my collection of fountain pens and then all I can do is to keep winding, to tell myself please please keep winding.