Ever since Jack’s funeral Sandra had been covered in glass. Not glass from an accident, shattered bits of windshield or the hard razor-cut edges of a plate glass window. Nothing like that.
Sandra was covered in a thick layer of elastic glass that stretched over her body like another skin, holding her in and keeping everybody else out. It moved with her wherever she went, invisible under her clothes, into the shower, into bed, into the sun, and kept her cold as ice. Friends knocked on it.
She could hear them, but the glass was over her eyes, too, so that everything she saw was far away, even though she knew she could reach out and touch. She was covered in ice-cold glass and would never be warm again. So when Sandra saw the gaudy envelope in the mailbox, her heart sank. She knew what it washer invitation to the annual dinner she and a group of school friends had maintained for over thirty years. She would have to go, of course; she couldn’t not go, but she dreaded it all the same. Another item on the list called First Meetings Post Jack. More hugging and caring and how-are-you-getting-on to negotiate. The first widow among them, an object of compassion, confrontation, and curiosity. How do you think she’s dealing with it? Not too badly.
Immersed herself in work. And what she couldn’t tell them, hadn’t told anyone, was that her days were as dry-eyed as a desert. She didn’t know how to weep. She reluctantly tore open the envelope and propped the invitation on the mantelpiece. Over the years they had tried a vast range of restaurants. This one would require a new dress.
That same afternoon Martha McKenzie walked down Muggs Hill Road, her strawberry hair glowing in the meek offering of the South Australian winter sun. She was rugged in her overcoat, and as usual she carried her three big bags: the expandable striped bag, the tapestry carpetbag, and the old brown suitcase. As she approached the corner near the bus stop something shimmering caught her attention. The shimmering was in front of a small bluestone church that Martha had passed hundreds of times but never entered. Martha was not in the habit of going to church. She was forty- seven years old and hadn’t needed church yet, nor it her. Martha was decidedly uninterested in churches; the last time she had been to church she was ten years old and had bitten an old man on the hand, for good reason. She was long-sighted, but she wore her glasses now for knitting. She squinted at the shimmering. Martha liked things to be right side up and comprehensible, though some things, she knew, could not be explained. This was like a heat haze or the flummery flow of air above a gas pump on a hot day. Martha looked carefully left and right down the narrow street, then tramped across it to the church. Here she was distracted by something else. Above the steps leading up to the front porch was a heavy wooden door, cheerfully painted but firmly shut, and on the door was a HELP WANTED sign, with a phone number and a cartoon of a woman with a vacuum cleaner. Martha sat heavily on the church stepsher knees gave her trouble in winterto think about it, but she kept her fingers resting on the handles of her bags in case something untoward happened. The high column of shimmering was to her left, half over a cement path and half over a rose bed abutting the path. The silvery light didn’t seem to mind the prickly bare sticks of wintering roses; it moved and flowed among them without proper regard for itself. Like a waterfall, thought Martha, only nothing gets wet. She sat there watching it, her mind busy with other thoughts. Sometimes so many thoughts buzzed in her brain she felt as if she had a beehive on her shoulders instead of a head. This morning the buzzing was mild and had to do with the rose bushes in front of her, cleaning a church, and rectifying her current knitting problem, a complex lace pattern she had not been able to get right. Martha loved roses and noted that these needed pruning, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything properly. It was hard to concentrate when everything around seemed to sparkle. Then, in a moment of clarity, like a knot that untangles itself when tugged at both ends, the knitting problem resolved. Martha stood up, reread the notice on the church door, then tore it off and put it in the side pocket of one of her commodious bags. She closed her fingers around the handlesshe had barely let go of two of themstood stiffly, and went home.
Sandra was reading in the study she had oncce shared with Jack. Outside it was cold and getting dark. It was already dark and cold inside, except for this room, the smallest room at the back of the house. The study was easy to keep warm; there was no point in warming the whole house for one peeeeerson. To her left was a pile of books on ancient textiles and a stack of tagged journal articles waiting to be read. To her right was a neat tray of work completed: essays marked, forms filled out, a letter supporting a student’s application for scholarship extension. Even here Sandra was spare with the heating. She wore thick socks, a heavy sweater, and a jacket over that, but her fingers were still cold. Wear wool, said Sandra’s mother across fifty years of living, Wear that woolen sweater I made youit’s much warmer. But in spite of her fascination with textiles, Sandra had dismissed the comfort and warmth of wool long ago. Wool was too slow, too impractical for a modern world: it might be machine washable but it still ruined in the dryer. Wool was too romantic, too pastoraltoo innocent. The nursery rhymes about sheepBaa Baa Black Sheep, Little Bo Peepall had happy endings. Wool was just one of the many textiles she had studied over the years. It was durable if you could keep the moths out, but she had no personal interest in it. Wool was noteworthy as a phenomenon, but not viable in Sandra’s fast and busy world. As for Australia riding on the sheep’s back, those days were over. It was ten months since Jack’s death.
After the chaos caused by his illness and the many changes in learning to be single again, Sandra was pretending that she led an ordered life.
Her desk was clear except for the papers in use, her books straight and easy in their orderly rows, the bulletin board uncluttered. She had covered the flat, bleak surface of Jack’s empty desk with potted plants and piles of books, but the plants failed to thrive and the books were those she never read. Her screen saver resolved into Jack’s face. He smiled at her from under his cotton sun hat and above his favorite woolen jacket, made by a local weaver. His face was crinkled against the wind blowing that day on the top of Mt. Buffalo; the stubbly beard showed new gray. It wasn’t a particularly well-composed photo, but it caught the light in his dark eyes, the lurking amusement that had stopped Sandra from taking herself too seriously. On difficult days she turned the screen saver off so she could get on with her work. Jack’s photo was one of many available on the program’s random choice, but sometimes the timing was terrible. On the wall opposite the computer was a print of Frederic Cotman’s One of the Family, oil on canvas, 1880. Jack, the impossible romantic, had loved that painting, the suffused golden light, the cozy family sitting down to lunch, the interplay of action and relationship, the ridiculous horse at the door. But to Sandra it had seemed a mockery, a kind of pretense, something longed for but unattainable. It looked warm and soft and comfortable, like an old cotton dress, but reality was different. Reality was a cotton dress too small, buttons lost and seams fraying into holes. After Jack died, Sandra took the painting down from the dining room wall, but when she tried to carry it out to the shed, somehow it wouldn’t go. So, although she hadn’t liked it for more than twenty yearsever since it became clear that they would have no childrenshe took it to her study and hung it on the wall at her back. There, she had said to Jack’s reappearing photo, with the grim amusement that got her through the days: I don’t like it, but have it if you want. Jack, like Sandra, had begun academic life as a historian. Since those early years their paths had diverged: Sandra had begun with war history and moved easily to feminism and perceptions of women’s work, then concentrated on textiles. Jack had made an even bigger shift: his interest in the impact of white settlement on local Aboriginal populations had evolved into a committed amateur interest in the threatened bird species of southern Australia. Jack might have been romantic, but when it came to disappearing birds he was an utter pragmatist. Driven by alarm at the rapid rate of species extinction, he had been a keen volunteer on revegetation programs, both locally in the Adelaide Hills and farther north, where the introduced rabbits, sheep, and goats had decimated the natural habitat. Eventually his hobby dominated his work; his research was inventive, his record-keeping thorough, his books and journal articles internationally respected. In a climate of environmental pessimism he worked hard and hopefully for the future, developing action plans for the preservation and reintroduction of birds like the diamond firetail and the Mount Lofty Ranges spotted quail-thrush. Jack worked for the future but lived thoroughly in the present. Sandra had seen how every chance finding of even common feathers gave him a little rush of pleasure. She did not share his fascinationanother magpie feather, another wattlebird killed by a catbut she envied his delight. With more unusual feathers his wide mouth wreathed into smiles, his brown fingers pressed and smoothed. Such simple access to joy. Her own life seemed complicated, her pleasures always one step removed. After Jack died, Sandra opened the big box of feathers he had collected on their walks. For a week or two she left them lying about on the coffee table, though some broke free and drifted around the room, reminding her of past conversations with Jackelegance, strength, protection. Could they be displayed somehow? She scooped them back into the box and took them to Martin, a picture framer who had been a close friend of Jack’s. When she returned to pick up the one framing she had ordered, he presented her with a large package. A gift, he said, in memory of Jack. Open it at home. And waved away her purse. When Sandra lined up the framed pieces along the skirting board in her living room, she saw that Martin had reworked her meager idea into something far greater. The six pieces, individually simple, became something more in juxtaposition, a mass of wings beating upward, gathering into flight. The following weekend Martin came to hang them for her. Sandra took him to the bedroom, hoping he would not think her sentimental. Here, she said, around the bed. Martin set to work. As she passed him the first piece, she suddenly noticed the neat inscription in fine silver writing on the back: Jack Fildes / Martin Shepherd: Series 1/6, Wings. But here she was, distracted again.
Sandra frowned and turned back to the computer. The screen saver flicked on, another rogue photo from one of Jack’s albums. A cemetery, of all things, and through the middle, focused and clear, a carpet of thousands of red roses. Jack and his digital camera. Almost a year now, and new photos still appearing from nowhere. She turned back to the journal article she had been reading: “Textile Artifacts of Ancient Greece.” Perhaps this would stop her from thinking about Jack.
Martha had been out all day and was glad to be nearly home. The wind flapped at her buttoned coat and tugged at her bags. She liked this last stretch of the walk at this time of evening, watching parents coming home from work, children carrying sports clothes, dining room tables lit before the blinds came down. In summer, elderly Greek and Italian couples sat on their front verandas and nodded hello, but now, in winter, they were tucked into warm kitchens at the back. Martha imagined them serving dinner, moussaka and pasta. Martha was carrying the usual three bags plus a shopping bag bulging with butternut squash and potatoes and a nice meaty bone she had found at the market. It had been a long day, and she looked forward to wrapping herself around some soup. After the soup she would have that bit of leftover apple pie made with apples from the family farm, and then, when she had done her dishes and made a nice pot of tea, she would sit at the kitchen table and read the knitting magazine she had just bought at the newsagent. It had a new technique that she had never tried, a fancy kind of slipstitch, and her fingers were itching for it.
Sandra leaned back from her desk and sighed. For all her facility with words, she was not able to articulate what she found so fascinating in these ancient objects. These fragments of women’s work had survived for thousands of years: tiny bits of cloth and hand toolsspindles, whorls, loom weights. Things made from the earth: clay, bone, stone, soapstone, gold, even, trapped in dirt and dust no broom had swept away. She could never imagine her own work surviving so long. But these women from the ancient past, working in their own clear present, would not have expected permanence either. What spinner or weaver would have believed such fragile things could last as long as this? Even now the warp and weft of the cloth were clearly visible, fourteen threads to the centimeter, evenly spaced.
Sturdy, everyday linen, wrapped around a dagger to protect it from damp, put aside for a week or a month, dug up after millennia. Beautiful tools. Slender lengths and rounded weights, the beauty and necessity of balance, allowing the long thread from the distaff to be spun evenly by thumb and forefinger. Some of the smaller spindles for cotton and linen weighed only a few grams. And incised on the top of some was the concentric circle, the god’s eye, for protection. Sandra was not good with her hands. Her mother’s small, stubby fingers had been surprisingly deft: they held the finest thread with delicacy, were precise with a needle. She had wanted to share these skills with Sandra, but Sandra was clumsy with needlework, no better with knitting. Besides, she wanted to be different from her mother. However, in recent years her research had generated deep longing. Women who shared domestic necessitiesfood gathering, cloth making, medicine preparation, life-giving work compatible with child careseemed to lead more integrated lives than she herself experienced. Alone now, husbandless, motherless, childless, she wanted to reconnect with some kind of community, with the long line of women and their work. Impossibly romantic, of courseshe must have caught it from Jack. She was living in the twenty-first century, she had a laptop, she was connected to the whole world via the Internet. More “community” than the ancients could ever have imagined. But it would be fun to follow her heart for once, to do something different from the usual round of lectures and articles. Mount an exhibition, perhapswomen’s work, clothing of some kind. Nothing grand, a love job to fill a simple space somewhere, a small celebration of domestic work, the meanings of domestic cloth. Nothing too demanding or serious. She could play curator. Besides, it would occupy her, give her a new project to fill some of the gaping hole left by Jack. And she could include her own craft, writing, somehow. Clothing interspersed with text. She felt fragments of idea cluster toward possibility. That textiles conference coming up in Wollongongperhaps she would go after all. Maybe things would become clearer then.
Martha put the soup to boil, then unfolded the paper she had taken from the church door. She would rather clean a house than a church, but a church had happened along, so she might as well apply and see what came of it. And the location suited her, it was on her bus route into town, just before the South Parklands, which bordered the square-mile grid of the city proper. In fact she could walk into the city from the church if she wanted. The fact was, she needed a job; if you wanted to keep knitting with something as exotic as cashmere you had to find the funds. Well, it might be silk. Or lambswool. She still hadn’t decided, but whichever she chose, it would be expensive. She dialed the number on the paper. A pleasant voice answered. “Kate Linkett.” “My name is Martha McKenzie. I’ve rung about the job.” “Job?” “The cleaning job. At the church.” “Oh, yes. Sorry, I’m not really with it today. Are you free for an interview next Thursday?” Martha was. Half an hour later the pleasant voice phoned back and confirmed the appointment.
Five-thirty next Thursday at the back of the church, through the door marked OFFICE.
Sandra had had a good dream, though it was receding quickly now. Ambushed again in her sleep. Jack wasn’t here. Jack would never be here again. She and Jack always slept in on Saturdays, had a slow breakfast together over the paper, coffee and something different from the daily muesli and toastcroissants, bagels, bacon with tomatoes from the garden. By the time breakfast was over, the washing was finished. They would hang it out together, then do the housework in one hour flat, Jack the upstairs and the bathrooms, Sandra the kitchen, dining room, living room, and both verandas. Jack’s illness had been totally unexpected. A walker, climber, swimmer, always the fitter of the two, Jack had collapsed when they were on vacation, dawdling pleasantly at Sydney’s Circular Quay. After it became clear that he was seriously ill, Sandra hired cleaning help for a while, but she found it more intrusive than useful, feeling she must tidy for the cleaner, embarrassed by tissues in the wastebasket and toothpaste on the vanity. Jack, more relaxed, said, “That’s her job. We pay her to clean up our mess!” Sandra could never shake the sense that she was being spied on, that her personal details were laughed over in some cleaning women’s union. As Jack grew thinner and more and more fatigued, Sandra resented any intrusion on what she knew must be their last days together. Three weeks before Jack died, she terminated the cleaner’s services and moved their bedroom downstairs to the dining room, with the French doors open to the deck and the sun. The house needed cleaning now, but what was the point? Who would ever see? She should do some shopping too, but there were a few stalwarts in the cupboard: baked beans, packaged soups, a can of corn. She turned over and felt for Jack’s pajamas under his pillow. She still hadn’t washed them, though after all these months they couldn’t really smell of him. It was simply the fabric, the worn flannel, the sense of his touch. Her sharp practical side told her to get out of bed and throw everything in the washing machine, Jack’s pajamas included. That self was loud and necessary: it got her through work, it prepared lectures, it kept people at bay. But the real strength, Sandra knew, was with her other self, the soft sad one, the one that was allowed out only on weekends, the self that would keep her in bed until well after lunch. She turned her face into the pillow. On the walls around her bed the feathers strained upward toward light.
Copyright © 2005 by Anne Bartlett.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.