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'That Which is Woven' by Gina Challen

LISP 2nd Half 2021Short Story Finalist 'That Which is Woven' by Gina Challen

that which is woven

It’s been a long time coming, this departure. A year in the making. One of raw emotion and arguments, linked by fragments of calm. Brief hiatuses, when she believed there might be a chance they’d come through, yet again, relatively unscathed. Scarred perhaps, different maybe, but together.

Heartsore, Izzie sits at her loom, hands, folded in her lap, and her eyes, closed. This final act of his going is something she can’t understand and, never really expecting him to leave, she feels foolish. Pictures cover the walls of her studio, sketches, ink drawings, photographs and cartoons from tapestries she’s finished and has yet to store away. Her worktable is pushed to the back of the room and, either side of it, the shelving units are stacked with yarns, empty bobbins, books, bottles of ink and all the tools she needs for her work.

In truth, she has been stupid underestimating the allure of this latest relationship, not recognising the power wielded by his new lover. There have been others in their fifteen years together, not counting this one, three that she knew about. She remembers their names. According to Mark, each time it happened would be the last. Promise. Raking through the past few months, there must have been signs that this one is different and, stupidly, she has missed them. She has missed all the little signals warning her that this time, it’s serious. She’s missed them because, despite the arguments, she thought, like every other one of his little flings, they would muddle through. Because, she thought he loved her.

Taped up on the wall behind the loom is her latest cartoon. In this, a crescent moon hangs above a tree and, tucked in the bottom corner, a spider crouches in the centre of a web. This next piece of work is to be a skilful homage to the old and the new, and the drawing, angular and stylised in its design, once pleased her. Over the last few months, she has worked hard, gathering the wools she needs and choosing her palette with balance and care. Indigo for the sky, amber for the moon, shades of russet and sepia, of taupe and umber, of viridian and hunter green. She has picked flint-grey for the shadows, silver for the web, and, for the spider, jet, as black a dye as she could find. Now, the yarns she gathered are grouped on the work table, wound tight around their spools, waiting for her attention.

There have been days, better days than this, when she has imagined the tapestry complete. These were the days when she knew he was coming home to her. Days when she looked up from her work to see him striding across the garden, or paused in the doorway of her studio, with a smile lighting his face. On good days like these, she has imagined the piece finished and her work, done. She has pictured herself unrolling the take up from the beam and glimpsing, for the first time, all her chosen colours. She has seen how they are as a whole, woven closely together in the finished piece.

Right now, the empty stretch of the warp threads waits to be inked with the lines of the design and, for that, she needs a steady hand. She needs to clear her mind. Rising, she walks over to her cartoon. He had helped her with this, although not helped as such, but had sat with her, chatting and encouraging her whilst she painted. He listened as she explained her ideas, a tree to show stability, the fickle moon for change and the spider, a spinner and weaver of destiny. He laughed as she talked. In her foolishness, she’d thought it was with love.

Earlier, as he packed a suitcase, Mark had been adamant. This is, he said, final. This is the end of us. All the while he spoke, she said nothing. No questions. No argument. Not one word. I’ll be back for the rest of my things, he told her. It would be better if they made a clean break. There was no point in dragging things out, he said. Such a ridiculous things to say, she thought, but never spoke it. She never asked why now, or begged him to change his mind. I won’t be taking much, he said, and then told her to do as she liked with the rest.

Keep busy. This is the panacea offered at times like these. She picks up her pen and begins to transfer the outline of her design. Mark hadn’t told her where he was going. She has no address for him, nowhere to send any post, nowhere to fix him to. She can’t sit outside his new home, tear-streaked and angry, waiting for him to appear. She can’t accost him, her hand clutching his arm, begging him to return. Izzie can’t do any of these things. Skeletal, the picture gradually takes shape across the threads. As she marks the final arc of the moon, she wonders if, or how, she could have stopped him.

When he left this morning, closing the front door with the heavy thump of solid oak, she’d stood at the bedroom window and listened to the clock downstairs chime nine. She watched him walk to his car. He didn’t look round. As the car pulled away, she remained at the window, wondering where he was heading, wishing she had asked. She tried to imagine him somewhere else.

Keep busy. She selects a cone of wool from the table, a beautiful, rich russet, she has chosen to frame the design. She winds the yarn, her fingers moving effortlessly as she loads the bobbin. She works quickly, losing herself in the rhythm, selecting the next cone and winding the next bobbin, until all the wools are done. Studying her cartoon, she sets the colours in order. She pauses and exhaustion takes hold of her, flooding through her muscles. She leans forward, folds her arms onto the table and rests her head on them.

She’d always thought Mark’s first affair was the worst. The pain of his earliest betrayal slicing through her until she thought she would break. She’d expected it would fracture her so badly that she could never repair. And yet, not so. She survived. They survived. With each infidelity, somehow Izzie and Mark had survived. This time, when he returns, it can be the same again, they can rebuild their life together. When he returns.

His new woman, would she be happy to know that Izzie and Mark had still shared a bed? That their lovemaking, whilst sparse, had still been a part of their lives? And, knowing this, would she still want him? Even last night, Mark lay beside her, his body a warm and familiar presence. Granted, they had not touched, unless a brush of lips and squeeze of the hand counted. After that, he turned away to sleep, while Izzie remained awake and solitary, staring into the darkness, listening to the rise and fall of their breathing.

Looking at the loom, she doubts she can find the energy to begin her weaving. The bobbin is strangely heavy in her hand and the russet wool, chosen with such care, appears brassy and tasteless. She is incapable of making the initial pass across the warp. The anticipation she usually feels at the moment of starting the weaving process is missing. The familiar catch of breath as she begins a new piece of work is absent. Mark, too, is absent. Gone. Losing him is a great weight of sorrow. It’s a hulk, crouched both inside her and beside her. Its presence makes her too frightened to cry. Once she starts, she will never stop.

Perhaps, she should call a friend, someone to talk to, to share her pain. If she does, it will be hours of explaining, of ransacking her life, their life, and she doesn’t want that. She takes up the bobbin again, feeling the heft of it in her palm and the smooth outline of the wood against her skin. She makes one pass across the warp threads and back again, beating the weft into place. If Mark comes home in a week or so, then all the talking in the world will have been for nothing. Anyway, how can she put this thing, this happening, into words? Izzie pushes back her stool.

The door to her studio is propped open by a cast iron boot scraper, a gift from Mark, given after their first year together. She touches it with her foot, rubbing the sole of her trainer across the sharp edge. Remaining on the threshold, she looks down the length of the garden to the house. Behind her stands the loom and before her, an expanse of uncut lawn and unkempt flower beds. Around the old apple tree, windfalls litter the ground. What a waste just to leave them to rot, she should gather them up. Under the hedge, a carrier bag has blown in and snarled on a bramble. It twists and turns in the wind. From now on, she will have to look after this garden. She wonders if she knows how. Lifting the boot scraper aside, she shuts the door and secures the latch.

Crossing the lawn, she bends to tug the bag free. This small bit of tidying is one thing she can do. She pulls at the bag. It stays firmly snagged. Kneeling, she wraps both hands in the plastic and, as she rips it free, catches her thumb on a thorn. Startled, she snatches her hand away and watches a spot of blood rise, red and proud, on her skin. She licks it clean and, with a tissue from her pocket, binds the wound. As she walks to the dustbin, the metallic tang of her blood is sharp on the tip of her tongue.

In the house, her movements are slow. It is as if, by her being in their space, the space they once shared, she is loaded down. Out of habit, she makes tea and the effort of lifting the kettle almost defeats her. She can’t be bothered to add milk. She carries the mug upstairs and places it on the bedroom window sill. Her thumb is bleeding again and, in the bathroom, she wraps it in a flannel whilst searching for a plaster. His shaving foam and razor are gone from the shelf in the cabinet. His toothbrush is still in the mug.

Their bedroom is a mess. The room appears ransacked. Bedcovers are pooled on the floor, the wardrobe doors are flung open and, on Mark’s side, empty hangers line the rail. In the corner, shoved aside in his hurry to get out of their house and into his car, stand a couple of half-filled boxes. From the doorway, Izzie stares at it all. Suddenly, she strides across the room, grabs a book from Mark’s bedside cabinet and drops it into the nearest box, along with an open packet of mints. She picks up his watch. Her gift to him. Unfashionable now, it had been, years back, a memento of their first holiday together. She had given it as a keepsake. Slowly, she lifts it to her mouth, closes her eyes and strokes it across her lips, as if searching for a last taste of him on the worn leather strap.

Sitting on the bed, she pulls open a drawer of the cabinet and pushes her finger through a jumble of forgotten objects. She picks out a set of broken earphones, the wire loose and twisted, two pens, and a foil strip of paracetamol and flings them, one after the other, on top of the book. He can do what he likes with it all. Yanking the drawer free, she tips a shower of odd coins, cough sweets and old batteries into the box. The watch too. She holds it out and, instead of letting go, folds her fingers around it and slips it away, tucking it into the pocket of her jeans.

She begins to gather Mark’s belongings from around the room and throws them into the boxes. This is not of her choosing, this leaving and, with a sudden flare of anger, she wants no part of him left. She wants everything gone. Faster and faster, she works, emptying drawers, sweeping her arm across the dressing table, pulling pictures from the wall and grabbing photo frames. She collects his dressing gown from the hook on the door and his sponge and toothbrush from the bathroom. All of him, gone. This is definitely what she wants. Stepping backwards, she catches her foot in the bedding and stumbles to the floor.

Izzie hauls the duvet over her shoulders, gathers the top edge in her arms and clutches it to her face. Mark won’t be back. She folds to the carpet. Hugging the duvet, she curls into its warmth. The cotton is soft against her skin and she breathes in the smell of the two of them lingering in the fabric. This is wrong. She is wrong. She doesn’t want a life without Mark. She feels the sobs rise from deep within her and can do nothing to stop them. She keens. Wild, desolate cries that fill the space around her. He won’t be back. Not this time. Her throat aches. She tries to swallow. She is left gasping and choking on the floor.

She dozes, only to stir an hour or so later, her body cramped and over-hot. Her thoughts are a jumble of fragmented images. In them, there is only Mark and he is always leaving. Even when she can see his face, even when he is walking towards her, smiling, his hand reaching out to take hers, even then, she knows he is leaving. She kicks the cover away and, kneeling with her hands on the side of the bed, heaves herself upright. She tries to remember when he will return for his belongings. If he mentioned a time? And if so, did she agree? She thinks not. Dragging the boxes into the bottom of his wardrobe, she closes the doors.

Holding the banister, she makes her way, step after careful step, downstairs to the kitchen. At the sink, she fills a glass and gulps at the cold water. Drops spill from her mouth and she wipes them away with the back of her hand. She can’t breathe. All the time she is in this place, she can’t breathe. She is surrounded by the objects they’ve chosen. Their life together is everywhere she looks. She can see it in the paper on the walls and the paint on the doors. She feels burdened, as if every decision they have ever made is bearing down on her. She needs to separate herself, to take herself away, yet is unwilling to be far from the house.

Izzie rolls the lawnmower from the garage. To be in the garden, this is the best she can manage. Her head aches and her throat is sore, but it’s good to be outside where her breathing feels easier. The grass is long, in places forming tussocks of tough, uneven ground. She starts at the edge nearest her studio, cutting in a straight line towards the back door, turns and retraces her steps. It’s hard going, the weight of the box as it fills making the mower difficult to manoeuvre. Her fingers grip tightly around the handle as she pushes and the muscles in her shoulders begin to throb.

She empties the last of the mowings into the compost bin. The smell of cut grass surrounds her, clean and fresh. Brushing her hands on the back of her jeans, she feels the ridge of Mark’s watch and pulls it free. Only ten hours have passed since he left and walked, without turning, to the car. How is that so? Today, ten hours is a lifetime. Gently, she touches the arc of the strap, seeking the shape of his wrist. Closing her fist around the watch, she stares at the emerald stripes she has made on the lawn. She thinks of the wool she has picked for the tapestry, pictures the green threads wound tightly on the bobbins, coloursas bright and pure as the ones she has just created.

It is late. The day has passed. Sitting once more at her loom, Izzie begins to weave. Pressing on the treadle, she passes the bobbin through the shed and across the warp. Her muscles are tired from the mowing and her movements are slow and heavy. She feels like a novice, that she lacks skill she once had and is learning anew. She speaks the process out aloud and her voice, unsure at first, gains momentum as she works. Shed. Pick. Batten. Shed. Pick. Batten. It is as if she has become both teacher and acolyte. The sound of the words and the whisper of the wool as it passes over the warps reassures her.

After a time, Izzie no longer speaks her mantra, instead, it has become one with the rhythm of the weave. After each lay, she beats the weft against the fell and, millimetre by millimetre, builds the cloth. She is guided by the cartoon. As she works, she knots in her colours: sepia, taupe and umber, viridian and hunter green, silver and flint grey and jet, as black a dye as she could find. It will take months of work before she adds indigo for the sky and amber for the moon, and months again before she is finished. Maybe it will take longer, a year perhaps, or more. Who knows when, exactly, she will unravel her tapestry? Who knows when, exactly, she will see the design emerge, new and complete?

Who knows when she will say, speaking aloud to herself, ‘It is done.’



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