The Silk by Joy Cowley
It came from China, a piece of blue silk that lit up the room with its colours – the peacocks with their shining silvery tails, the blue lakes and the white waterfalls, the cloudy mountains and the dark blue trees. It was too lovely to wear, too beautiful to cut with scissors.
All through the long years of a marriage, the silk had stayed safely in its box – waiting, but not forgotten. And now the time had come…
When Mr Blackie became ill again that autumn, both If he and Mrs Blackie knew that it was for the last time. For many weeks, neither spoke of it; but the understanding was in their eyes as they watched each other through the days and nights. It was a look seen in the faces of the old and the very young, neither sad, nor hopeless, just a quiet understanding; they accepted what was coming.
It showed in other ways too. There were no more cross words from Mrs Blackie about her lazy old husband. Instead, she took care of him day and night. She managed their money carefully to buy him his favourite foods; she let the district nurse visit him, but no more than twice a week.
Mr Blackie went to his bed and stayed there quietly. He had never talked much about the past, but now he spoke a lot about their earlier days. Sometimes, to Mrs Blackie’s surprise, he remembered things that she had forgotten. He talked very little about the present and never in those weeks about the future.
Then, on the first icy morning of the winter, while Mrs Blackie was filling his hot water bottle, he sat up in bed to see out the window. He could see a row of houses outside, with ice on the grass in front of them, like a white carpet.
‘The ground will be hard,’ he said at last. ‘Hard as a rock.’
Mrs Blackie looked up quickly. ‘Not yet,’ she said.
‘Soon, I think.’ He smiled, but she knew he was saying sorry to her. She put the hot water bottle into its cover.
‘Lie down or you’ll catch cold,’ she said.
He lay back against the pillow, but as she moved about him, putting the hot water bottle at his feet, he stared at the shapes of ice on the window.
‘Amy, you’ll get a double plot, won’t you?’ he said. ‘I won’t rest easy if I think that one day you’re going to sleep by someone else.’
What a thing to say!’ The corners of her mouth moved suddenly. ‘You know very well I won’t do that.’
‘It was your idea to buy single beds,’ he said crossly.
‘Oh, Herb – She looked at the window, away again. ‘We’ll have a double plot.’ For a second or two she waited by his bed, then she sat down beside his feet, with one hand resting on top of the other. This was the way that she always sat when she had something important to say:
‘You know, I’ve been thinking on and off about the silk.’
‘The silk?’ He turned his head towards her.
‘I want to use it for your laying-out pyjamas.’
‘No, Amy,’ he said. ‘Not the silk. That was your wedding present, the only thing that I brought back with me.’
‘What am I going to do with it now?’ she said. When he didn’t answer, she got up, opened the cupboard door and took down the wooden box. ‘All these years we’ve kept it. We should use it sometime.’
‘Not on me,’ he said.
‘I’ve been thinking about your pyjamas.’ She fitted a key into the lock on the box. ‘It’ll be just right.’
‘It’ll be a right mistake, I think,’ he said. But he could not keep the excitement out of his voice. He watched her hands as she opened the box, and pulled back the sheets of thin white paper. Below them lay the blue of the silk. They were both silent as she took it out and put it on the bed.
‘Makes the whole room look different, doesn’t it?’ he said. ‘I nearly forgot it looked like this.’ His hands moved with difficulty across the bed cover. Gently she picked up the blue silk and let it fall in a river over his fingers.
‘Aah,’ he sighed, bringing it close to his eyes. ‘All the way from China.’ He smiled. ‘I kept it on me all the time. You know that, Amy? There were people on that ship who wanted to steal that silk. But I kept it pinned round my middle.’
‘You told me,’ she said.
He held the silk against his face. ‘It’s the birds that you notice,’ he said.
‘At first,’ said Mrs Blackie. She ran her finger over one of the peacocks that marched across the land of silk. They were beautiful birds, shining blue, with silver threads in their tails. ‘I used to like them best, but after a while you see much more, just as fine, only smaller.’ She pushed her glasses higher up her nose and looked closely at the silk, her eyes following her finger. She saw islands with waterfalls between little houses and dark blue trees; flat lakes with small fishing boats; mountains with their tops in silvery clouds; and back again to a peacock with one foot in the air above a rock.
‘They just don’t make anything as beautiful as this in this country,’ she said.
Mr Blackie held up the box, enjoying the smell of the wood. ‘Don’t cut it, Amy. It’s too good for someone like me.’ But his eyes were asking her to disagree with him.
‘I’ll get the pattern tomorrow,’ she said.
The next day, while the district nurse was giving him his injection, she went down to the store and chose a pattern from the pattern books. Mr Blackie, who had worn boring pyjamas all his life, looked at the picture of the young man on the front of the packet and crossed his arms.
‘What’s this – a Chinese suit? That’s young men’s clothes, not suitable for me,’ he said.
‘Rubbish,’ said Mrs Blackie.
‘Modern rubbish,’ he said, ‘that’s what it is. You’re never putting those on me.’
‘It’s not your job to decide,’ said Mrs Blackie.
‘Not my job? I’ll get up and fight – you wait and see.’
‘All right, Herb, if you really don’t like it -‘
But now he had won, he was happy. ‘Oh, go on, Amy. It’s not such a bad idea. In fact, I think they’re fine. It’s that nurse, you see. The injection hurt.’ He looked at the pattern.
‘When do you start?’
‘I could pin the pattern out after lunch, I suppose.’
‘Do it in here,’ he said. ‘Bring in your machine and pins and things so I can watch.’
She turned her head and looked at him. ‘I’m not using the machine,’ she said. ‘I’m doing it all by hand – every thread of it. My eyes aren’t as good as they were, but, nobody in this world can say that I’m not still good with my needle.’
His eyes closed as he thought. ‘How long?’
‘Until it’s finished.’
She turned the pattern over in her hands. ‘Oh – about three or four weeks. That is – if I work hard.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Too long.’
‘Oh, Herb, you want me to do a good job, don’t you?’ she said.
‘Amy -‘ He shook his head on the pillow.
‘I can use the machine for some of it,’ she said, in a quieter voice.
‘A week,’ she whispered.
Although the doctor had told him to lie flat in bed, he made her give him another pillow that afternoon. She took the pillow from her own bed, shook it, and put it behind his neck. Then she measured his body, legs, and arms.
‘I’ll have to make them a bit smaller,’ she said, writing down big black numbers. Mr Blackie was waiting, his eyes wide. He looked brighter, she thought, than he had for weeks.
As she arranged the silk on her bed and started pinning the first of the pattern pieces, he described the journey home by boat, the stop at Hong Kong, and the man who had sold him the silk.
Most of it was rubbish, he said. ‘This was the only good thing that he had, and I still paid too much for it. You got to argue with these people, they told me. But there were others who wanted that silk, and I had to buy it – or lose it.’ He looked at her hands. ‘What are you doing now? You just put that bit down.’
‘It wasn’t right,’ she said, through lips closed on pins. ‘It needs to be in just the right place. I have to join a tree to a tree, not to the middle of a waterfall.’
She lifted the pattern pieces many times before everything was right. Then it was evening, and Mr Blackie could talk no more. He lay back on his pillows, his eyes red from tiredness.
‘Go to sleep,’ she said. ‘Enough’s enough for one day.’
‘I want you to cut it out first,’ he said.
‘Let’s leave it until the morning,’ she said, and they both knew that she did not want to put the scissors to the silk.
‘Tonight,’ he said.
‘I’ll make the tea first.’
‘After,’ he said.
She picked up the scissors and held them for a moment. Then together they felt the pain as the scissors closed cleanly in that first cut. The silk would never again be the same. They were changing it, arranging the pattern of some fifty years to make something new and different. When she had cut out the first piece, she held it up, still pinned to the paper, and said, The back of the top.’ Then she put it down and went on as quickly as she could, because she knew that he would not rest until she had finished.
One by one, the pieces left the body of silk. Each time the scissors moved, mountains fell in half, peacocks were cut from head to tail. In the end, there was nothing on the bed but a few shining threads. Mrs Blackie picked them up and put them back in the wooden box. Then she took her pillow from Mr Blackie’s bed and made him comfortable before she went into the kitchen to make the tea.
He was very tired the next morning, but refused to sleep while she was working with the silk. From time to time, she thought of a reason to leave the room. He slept then, bur never for long. After no more than half an hour, he would call. She would find him awake, waiting for her to start again.
In that day and the next, she did all the machine work. It was a long, boring job, because first she sewed all the pieces in place by hand. Mr Blackie silently watched every move she made. Sometimes she saw him studying the silk, and on his face was a look that she remembered. It was the way that he had looked at her when they were young lovers. That hurt a little. He didn’t care about the silk more than he cared about her, she knew that, but he saw something in it that she didn’t. She never asked him what it was.
Someone of her age did not question these things or ask for explanations. She just went on with the work, thinking only of the sewing and the silk.
On the Friday afternoon, four days after she’d started the pyjamas, she finished the buttonholes and sewed on the buttons. She had had to work more quickly at the end. In the four days, Mr Blackie had become weaker. She knew that when the pyjamas were finished and put back in the box, he would be more interested in food and rest.
She cut the last thread and put away the needle.
‘That’s it, Herb,’ she said, showing him her work.
He tried to lift his head. ‘Bring them over here,’ he said.
‘Well – what do you think?’ As she brought the pyjamas closer, he saw them clearly and he smiled.
‘Try them on?’ he said.
She shook her head. ‘I measured you carefully,’ she said. ‘They’ll fit.’
‘We should make sure,’ he said.
Why didn’t she want him to try them on? She couldn’t find a reason. ‘All right,’ she said, turning on the heater. ‘Just to make sure the buttons are right.’
She took off his thick pyjamas and put on the silk. She stepped back to look at him.
‘Well, I have to say that’s a fine job. I could move the top button a little bit, but really they fir beautifully.’
He smiled at her. ‘Light, aren’t they?’ He looked all down his body and moved his toes. ‘All the way from China. I kept with me day and night. Know that, Amy?’
‘Do you like them?’
He tried not to look too pleased. ‘All right. A little bit small.’
‘They are not, and you know it,’ Mrs Blackie said crossly. ‘It wouldn’t hurt to say thank you. Here, put your hands down and I’ll change you before you get cold.’
He crossed his arms. ‘You did a really good job, Amy. Think I’ll keep them on for a bit.’
‘No.’ She picked up his thick pyjamas.
‘Because you can’t,’ she said. ‘It – it’s not the right thing to do. And the nurse will be here soon.’
‘Oh, you and your ideas.’ He was too weak to stop her, but as she changed him, he still could not take his eyes away from the silk. ‘Wonder who made it?’
She didn’t answer, but a picture came to her of a Chinese woman sitting at a machine making silk. She was dressed in beautiful Eastern clothes, and although she had Eastern eyes, she looked like Mrs Blackie.
‘Do you think there are places like that?’ Mr Blackie asked.
She picked the pyjamas up quickly and put them in the box. ‘You’re the one who’s been to the East,’ she said. ‘Now get some rest or you’ll be tired when the nurse arrives.’
The district nurse did not come that afternoon. Nor in the evening. It was half-past three the next morning when Mrs Blackie heard the nurse’s footsteps, and the doctor’s, outside the house.
She was in the kitchen, waiting. She sat with straight back and dry eyes, with one hand resting on top of the other.
‘Mrs Blackie, I’m sorry-‘
She didn’t answer and turned to the doctor. ‘He didn’t say goodbye,’ she said, her voice angry. ‘Just before I phoned. His hand was over the side of the bed. I touched it. It was cold.’
The doctor nodded.
‘No sound of any kind,’ she said. ‘He was fine last night.’
Again, the doctor nodded. He put his hand on her shoulder for a moment, then went into the bedroom. A minute later, he returned, closing his bag, speaking kindly.
Mrs Blackie sat still, hearing words. Peacefully. Brave. The words dropped onto her. They didn’t seem to mean anything.
‘He didn’t say goodbye.’ She shook her head. ‘Not a word.’
‘But look, Mrs Blackie,’ the nurse said gently. ‘It was going to happen. You know that. He was-‘
‘I know, I know.’ She turned away crossly. Why didn’t they understand? ‘I just wanted him to say goodbye. That’s all.’
The doctor offered her something to help her sleep but she pushed it away. And she refused the cup of tea that the district nurse put in front of her. When they picked up their bags and went towards the bedroom, she followed them.
‘In a few minutes,’ the doctor said. ‘If you’ll leave us -‘
‘I’m getting his pyjamas,’ she said. ‘I need to change a button. I can do it now.’
When she entered the room, she looked at Mr Blackie’s bed and saw that the doctor had pulled up the sheet. Quickly she lifted the wooden box, took a needle, thread, scissors, her glasses, and went back to the kitchen. Through the door, she heard the nurse’s voice, ‘Poor old thing,’ and she knew that they were not talking about her.
She sat down at the table to thread the needle. Her eyes were clear, but for a long time her hands refused to obey her. At last, her needle and thread ready, she opened the wooden box. The beauty of the silk always surprised her. As she arranged the pyjamas on the table, she was filled with a strong, warm feeling, the first good feeling that she had had that morning. The silk was real. The light above the table filled everything with life. Trees moved above the water, peacocks danced with white fire in their tails. And the little bridges…
Mrs Blackie took off her glasses, cleaned them, put them on again. She sat down and touched one bridge with her finger, then another. And another. She turned over the pyjama coat and looked carefully at the back. It was there, on every bridge; something she hadn’t noticed before. She got up and fetched her magnifying glass.
As the bridge in the pattern on the silk grew, the little group of threads, which had been no bigger than a grain of rice, became a man.
Mrs Blackie forgot about the button, and the quiet voices in the bedroom. She brought the magnifying glass nearer her eyes.
It was a man, and he was standing with one arm held out on the highest part of the bridge between two islands. Mrs Blackie studied him for a long time, then she sat up and smiled. Yes, he was waving. Or perhaps, she thought, he was calling her to join him