One Plain, One Purl, Two Sugars
SOUTHERLY - Autumn 1999
When Edna felt ready, she knitted herself a teapot.
A nice brown woollen affair, with bobbles sticking to the sides and lid, to the handle and spout, so the brown tea inside will forever bubble with steam.
She'd knitted as a child, using up scraps of wool, listening to the clack-clicking of needles as her grandmother and aunts dropped little stitches of wisdom her way.
"Two women and a goose make a market."
"Choose neither women nor linen by candlelight."
"Wash your face in the dew of the first of May and you will have a fine complexion and find a husband."
Not that it's done them much good, they're spinsters, even if they do have fine complexions.
Her mother sewed. For a living, since Edna's father was killed in the war. Blown to pieces, her grandmother used to say.
Edna preferred to remember him in uniform, as he looked the day he left, his photograph on the mantlepiece just above her head, till she grew big enough to look him in the face.
Her mother sewed baby dresses, row upon row of tiny stitches, creating frills and flounces, puffed sleeves, exquisite lace edging, sometimes, even smocking.
Only once did her mother make something larger - a dress for Edna, on the toy sewing machine she was getting for her birthday. The needle pierced a row of neat little holes in the yellow organza, the S-wheel beneath, looping back and forth, snatching the thread to form stitches as small and neat as the rows her mother sewed by hand.
Edna learnt to sew on that machine, although she still preferred knitting. As she grew older, other things claimed her attention, and she put her knitting aside, always knowing some day she'd come back to it.
There were knitters everywhere in those days, women on trains and buses, knitting away time till they reached their stop; in the half-light of cinemas, staring at the screen, the clickety-clack of needles pausing only to change rows, tug at the wool in their bags, or sometimes in the sad bits, to rummage for a hanky.
The years Edna was too busy to knit seemed to sum up the rest of her life. From the time she left school to become a secretary because she couldn't think of anything else to do, till years later and the day Reg told her he was leaving because he needed his own space. Then he added, "I'll be back later for my tools."
Good. The nasty things leave sawdust all over the shed floor. Not to mention the great hulking sit-on lawnmower he never uses.
Not that Reg's "finding himself" had anything to do with the office bimbo currently filling his space, or more to the point, he hers, but when the front door slammed behind him, Edna suddenly realised she'd never done anything without Reg. Whatever he'd insisted they do, they did.
Perhaps it was living in each other's pockets, but I thought it was the way he liked it. Anyway, he's probably fonder of his tools than he is of her. His circular saw, for instance, the angle grinder and carry case, his random orbit sander, the 13mm impact drill, his router and multi saw not to mention his hammer drill. Reg is a sucker for tools and catalogues. He haunts hardware stores and the shed's full of his noisy toys.
Not that his mania stopped at the tool shed. He was mad about household appliances too and had bought her every electrical gadget a woman could possible want. And more.
I can chop, mince, slice, pare, grate, shred, julienne, pulverise or purée whatever's on the bench. Then I can boil it, broil it, roast, bake, steam, stew, or sauté it, and while it's cooking, fluff up some rice, whip up a waffle, or juggle jaffles like an expert.
If after all that she felt worn out and her brain was sludging around like an ice-cream churn, at the flick of a switch she could grind her own coffee beans and make a simulated cappuccino.
I can reduce a carrot to its molecular structure, but whatever happened to the rest of my life?
Reg seemed to think she derived as much pleasure from kitchen gadgets as he did from power tools.
Mind you, his first attempt at putting up shelves was a disaster and from then on I never asked what he was actually making in the shed. The sound of whirring and hammering, drilling and sanding went on all the time, but there never anything to show for it. He probably went in there just to get away from me, and since noise meant power tools to Reg he just turned on all his gadgets at once. As long as they were shrilling and buzzing, grinding and drilling, he was at peace with the world. A sort of mechanical Om that brought him to a state of Nirvana.
Well, frankly, I need more than the whine of a food processor to give me a buzz.
Of course, she always thanked him politely for each new appliance. After all, he meant well and they were labour saving.
If I don't count the time spent washing every one of the multiple parts. But I was happy to go along with it, till he brought home the knitting machine.
He dumped it on the coffee table and said, "Here, now you can knit me a jumper."
"I don't need a machine to knit!" she told him.
"But I've never seen you knitting. Anyway, I'm going to be spending a bit of time interstate. I thought this way you wouldn't be lonely."
"And I don't need a machine for company!"
So the De Luxe Digital Knitting Mate sat unopened in its box and Reg went interstate.
After one such trip he walked out for good and Edna remembered one of her grandmother's pearls of advice, "Let the sufferer from toothache fill his mouth with cold spring water and sit beside the fireplace till the water boils."
Reg is my toothache, a nagging throb in my jaw. Not only that, he's deceived me and that's unacceptable.
"In water you see your face, in wine the heart of another," her grandmother had warned her.
Now I come to think of it, there were signs, stray whiffs of perfume, cheap and nasty, and dinners missed, when his plate sat on a saucepan of boiling water, till he wandered in saying, "I've eaten," then I'd give it to the cat.
"Buttons, things are going to change around here. You're going on a diet."
Buttons hissed and heaved himself onto the kitchen cupboards while Edna rang for a locksmith.
Then she climbed to the attic to retrieve her old sewing machine. Taking Reg's jumpers, she cut them up into big bold squares and triangles, diamonds and oblongs, trapezes and rhomboids, and sewed them all together in a luscious rebellion of colour, finishing up with a throwover for the coffee table.
When Reg came back and found the locks changed, he was furious. He banged and thumped on the doors to no avail; Edna had gone shopping. He thought of breaking in - after all, he had tools for it, but was it "breaking and entering" if it were still his house? In the end, he just left a note saying, "You'll be sorry, who'll protect you?" Forgetting of course, that since he'd left anyway, the question was hypothetical.
The shed was not locked, so he packed the car with his tools, leaving only the sit-on lawnmower which he wouldn't be needing in his new apartment. He did take the De Luxe Digital Knitting Mate, however, because he didn't have any jumpers and his live-in secretary might be prepared to make some for him. If he asked nicely.
Soon after, Edna arrived home with a large box of wool and a supply of needles and began to knit.
At first she dropped stitches, lost her place in the pattern and the wool dropped off her knee and rolled under the couch where Buttons wrestled it into submission.
"Practice is all I need," she said, rescuing the wool. And within a day or so she was creating scarves and mittens, caps and vests, beanies and mufflers, as if she'd never stopped.
So proficient was she, she decided to tackle something more challenging. "A teapot! I'm tired of that electric tea maker, I'd like a good old-fashioned pot, brown, so the stains don't show. Grandmother always said our insides must be quite discoloured with tea."
She knitted it in brown, making sure the handle was heat resistant and adding a good curved spout to avoid drips. As she knitted, she added chunky bobbles on the sides, "Like the knobbly bits you sometimes see on china ones."
Then she thought she'd knit a few cups and saucers, and teaspoons to go with them, and a good round tray. She filled the cups with brown woollen tea, a strong colour, though not as dark as her teapot, and made a sugar bowl with gleaming white sugar. For this she chose a rather sparkly wool.
All this made her hungry and she began to think about afternoon tea. So she knitted up a nice cake plate in a lovely blue with a butterfly on it and a solid cake stand, in a smart red. While she was doing that she thought about the cakes her grandmother used to make and that maybe she should knit up a batch. So she chose a range of pastels and knitted some dear little cup cakes with pretty icing, adding chopped up coloured wool, like sprinkles, on top.
The big cake proved more of a problem. She considered a Tipsy cake but wasn't sure which colour to use for the sherry. Then she thought a Dundee might be nice, but the white wool she'd need for almonds looked dull against the brown. And she didn't fancy a Simnel cake.
All that creamy wool marzipan might be too heavy and rich. Finally, she opted for a good old-fashioned fruit cake.
Not a boiled one, mind, where the colour of the fruit isn't bright and glossy, but Grandmother's pound cake. A pound of butter to a pound of sugar - and the rest as follows.
She chose a rich glossy tan for the brown sugar, a lovely pale gold for the butter and away she went, knitting at a fast pace to keep it all light and airy. She folded the gleaming colours of fruit into the spicy white wool she'd chosen for the flour and, when she considered the cake done and cooled, she set it carefully on the stand. Next she knitted a smart navy wrapper to go round it. On top she put a thick layer of Royal icing (using moss stitch to keep the texture thick and even) and spread it with a few woollen fruits she'd kept aside specially.
After all, what sort of rich dark fruit cake would it be without Royal icing and glacé fruit?
After a week of solid knitting, she took herself off for a break, on a bus tour. And it just so happened that the woman next to her turned out to be a knitter too, so they swapped patterns.
"All those lovely colours and textures, and the wool, warm and soft, trickling through your fingers," said Edna.
"I like the sound the needles make," the woman lowered her voice and whispered, "I find all that clickiting quite - well, stimulating."
Edna arrived home full of ideas inspired by the people she'd seen on the bus. She'd noted their features, their colouring, birthmarks, defects, habits, quirks, funny gaits, even their hands and fingernails.
Anything's possible in wool if you only set your mind to it.
Next day, she went out and bought more wool, more needles,
and started knitting again. Buttons yawned, and climbed onto her lap. He settled into a ball as pale and sandy as the wool she was using, flicking his tail as he lulled himself into the gentle rhythm of sleep. Edna knitted on. And on.
When she got up, two days later, she had knitted herself three new friends, each one a knitter.
There was Marge, who wore her hair short and permed and who'd had an operation for cataracts. Her eyes looked large and startled behind her green glasses. But she could see well enough and was just starting a pink jumper for her granddaughter who was turning three.
Lovely kiddy, she told Edna.
Marge felt the cold badly and went in for knitted stockings in bright colours, and long bloomers, although the elastic had a habit of giving up so the legs sometimes dangled a bit below her skirt.
Then there was Jean. She wore a hair net because, truth to tell, she was a bit bald and wore a wig. But since she couldn't afford a good one, she'd had to settle for one a little too big.
The hairnet helps keep it in place, she told Edna.
She'd knitted one with sparkles, so she'd look presentable when she went to the TAB. She was busy knitting a shopping bag with an All-Bran label on the side, to remind her that she was fresh out.
Then there was Mavis. She was a bit of a worrier. About chills mostly. So she'd knitted herself a beanie to keep her head warm. She was a great one for using up scraps of wool in all sorts of ways, like rugs and waistcoats.
And I always use a sewing machine for the seams. It makes them that much stronger than sewing by hand, she told Edna.
She hated to see woollens thrown out. As soon as they showed any sign of wear, she unravelled them and made something new from the good bits. She'd just started undoing the leg of her slacks and was using it to knit an all-in-one jump suit for a baby, in bright orange.
Young mothers nowadays go in for these bright colours and it will keep some little mite toasty warm.
Edna went off to bed quite worn out. She'd knitted Marge and Jean and Mavis with open mouths, and they'd made full use of them. Still, she couldn't complain, she was glad of the company, and it was certainly more than Reg had offered, down there in his tool shed or busy with his corporate affairs. As soon as she hit the pillow she fell sound asleep, while Buttons snuggled into the small of her back and purred.
Down near the fence, he saw her light go out. He waited a while then, forcing the lock on the kitchen window, climbed inside. Bruce was your typical burglar - old woollen jumper that had shrunk, knitted balaclava, one size too small, but that didn't stop him searching the drawers for money and rummaging through the sideboard.
He was tiptoeing upstairs when he caught sight of Marge, Jean and Mavis, still with their mouths open.
One plain, one purl and two sugars and just a dash of milk. Good and strong. That's fine, thanks.
The hairs on the back of his neck rose, tingling. His head began pounding from the loud CLACK-CLICKING of needles and, his not to reason why, Bruce turned and fled.
But as he climbed back through the kitchen window, he caught himself on a nail and tore off a little piece of his elbow. Not stopping to retrieve it, he fled down the garden and leapt over the fence.
It's just not fair. A bloke can't earn a decent living any more. He's forced to go straight.
Inside, Marge was wondering, What say we knit that nice young man a jumper? He certainly needs one.
Yes, and perhaps a balaclava? suggested Jean. I'm good on them.
And I'm sure he's not really bad. Just a bit down on his luck.
So each of them knitted a stitch in time to save Bruce.
Next morning, Edna woke up feeling quite refreshed. She padded downstairs in her knitted mocassins to find Marge, Jean and Mavis, hard at it.
"Morning, girls," she said opening the front door. She picked up the newspaper and draped it over her arm. Then she saw the note on the mat.
She peered to decipher the untidy stitches.
LORNS MOWD CHEEP. RING BRUCE.
"Oh yes, they do look bad, I've been too busy to notice and there's that perfectly good sit-on lawnmower just lying idle. Well, I'll give Bruce a ring after breakfast.
Behind their knitting, the trio beamed.
Edna went into the kitchen and was just filling the red woollen kettle at the sink, when she spotted the little tanned patch of wool clinging to the nail.
That's odd. It looks like part of someone's elbow. Oh well, I'll put it somewhere safe till I find out who it belongs to.
"Now, who wants a cuppa?" she called.
Love one, came the reply.
"Shell-shock" was not merely a politically correct term for cowardice, but described a real and devastating condition. British generals knew it, but chose to ignore it - in the public interest.
© Vashti Farrer