The Last Tweed
The Scottish Arts Council is proud to present this short story by Linda Cracknell - read more about about Linda Cracknell.
Print version of 'The Last Tweed'( .doc)
He’d been locked in for nearly two days when, once again, he paused in his work to slide the packet from the breast pocket of his overalls. It rattled slightly, telling George, as if he didn’t know, that there was only one cigarette left. He lifted it to his nose and sniffed. Even through the box, the scent rekindled his ache, a scent as distinct as the smoky whiff of freshly woven tweed when he’d got his arms around a bale of it. The huff of oil and his fingers grazing coarse fibre would conjure up heather, lichen, granite, sheep, send him beyond these walls and windows to hug the Perthshire hills themselves.
He flicked open the lid so he could see the pale circle of the filtered end. The salivations started, just as they did when he sat on the sofa at home and the words ‘King Prawn Korma’ on the Indian takeaway menu prickled at the roof of his mouth and pulsed heat against his palate.
He took the cigarette out and rolled it between his fingers, raised it to his lips. It was slightly battered and bent from its previous parades. All that was wanting was the spark which would grant a deep sigh of smoky relief.
But in here, with the oil-soaked timber, that spark was forbidden.
At first he had restricted this non-smoking ritual to the times of the factory breaks. It was habit. The first at nine o’clock – traditional breakfast-time after an hour’s work. The next was at eleven, then twelve-thirty for lunch and finally three o’clock in the afternoon, teatime.
When things were still normal, he would have put his break-time ciggie unlit into his mouth, paced down the steps, out of the heavy door, and up the path to the gate. The match striking out its tongue of sound and flame to turn paper, tobacco and himself into one breathing thing, wouldn’t come until he was completely off the premises, on the street. He used to relish the expectation.
‘George’s King Size sway,’ that was what the other boys had called his short stately walk. Or was it ‘way’ they’d been saying, he wondered now?
‘Aye, right Regal,’ he’d reply with an appropriate wave. He never hurried like them, watched the lichen-like ash crumble and drift downwind until it was time to grind the butt under a heel.
He could stop the loom whenever he fancied now he was alone. The days of the clocking-in machine, and the siren screeching through all four floors when it was time to surge down the stairs were a distant memory, one the grandchildren might talk about at school. Just like they’d soon be able to talk about Ravenscraig – the great days of British Steel – and maybe with a bit of luck even the Iron Lady herself.
There was no-one around to look over his shoulder. The young poofta, Knight, had buggered off back to Edinburgh with the excuse of the bank or the insurers or the assessors. Hadn’t George heard the hammering of nails into coffins when the fluff-faced lad joined the firm three years earlier with a black hole for business sense after some arty-farty university degree? What good could he possibly be, despite his father’s reassurances that the Mill was, ‘…in his blood, in his bones’. At least his father had shifted with the times, known how to be a boss, not just shrugged his shoulders and accepted market collapse.
So it was he himself, George Kaye, who was now King Prawn. He seemed to be charged with laying all that had happened here properly to rest, showing a bit of respect to a business that had sustained the place for over a century and a half. But he’d got himself locked in with this thing squeezing its steel tentacles around his chest.
He went back to the loom and put on his ear defenders. The pattern book with its rows of estate tweed samples was lying open, each window an echo of the landscape – mottled greens, blues, gold and beige. Bracken, bluebells, primroses, and birch. He was working on a length for the Glen Alder Estate. An outstanding order. Proof that there was still life in the business. It had to be fifty yards long, and so far it was only twenty-five. This was the only mill in the country still delivering these short commissions. And still working on the old dobcross looms at that.
He filled the pirn of pale blue yarn for a crossway that made up thirty-eight parts of the hundred, and replaced it in the shuttle. He thought of the oval recess inside as a womb, a strangely tender place within the grease-smoothed metal-tipped wooden bullet. He replaced the shuttle in its box, ready to cross and re-cross the warp that the shafts would open in sequence, determined by his careful threading the day before.
His stubby fingers worked at the loom, an echo of the first jerks and twitches of his apprentice hands back in Huddersfield. But after thirty years, the movements were automatic and smooth, despite the increasingly crooked back and failing eyes. Today he took the greatest care, slowing and exaggerating each gesture as if he was demonstrating to an ignorant audience who knew bugger all about weaving. He slid the power bar across and the shuttles started their journey, slamming across from box to box in a ferocious display of speed and noise.
Visitors to the Mill always commented on it.
‘How do you bear the noise?’ they’d ask when he stopped it.
‘Eh?’ He’d crane his neck and cup his ear in their direction as they started to repeat it. ‘I can’t hear ‘owt’.
There would never be any visitors now. He’d got used to the two floors hanging silently above him for the last ten years, and one yawning like a gloomy cellar below. But he knew fine well what would happen once the business was completely under wraps. The assessors wouldn’t know one end of a loom from another, wouldn’t know that they might be old enough to be valuable as museum artefacts – they’d end up as scrap.
Two days into his exile he was feeling quite at home. But when he went to fill the kettle at teatime, and nothing came out of the tap, his breath quickened. He knew enough about the IRA hunger strikes and the coal miners’ tactics to be sure he would draw a line. He wasn’t for those sort of heroics. You can’t live without fluids. It forced him to make an inventory – a proper assessment of his situation. He still had a litre of Irn Bru left, and whatever water was sloshing about in the bottom of the kettle. Food-wise, he had half a packet of jammy dodgers, the remainder of his corned beef sandwiches, and a pork pie. How long would that give him?
The other boys had only been gone a week, he realised, and might have left some scraps behind. On the windowsill next to Donny’s loom he found a caramel wafer, still in its wrapper. Next to Andy’s there was a tupperware box, all closed up with a slightly inflated lid. Inside were two jam sandwiches, not mouldy yet. He tried not to think about the bite missing from one of them and Andy’s yellowing teeth. It was only if he got really desperate.
He collected all the offerings into a clean yellow cloth, and went into the Knights’ office. It felt like a transgression, poking about in the boss’s desk drawers. Rows of Knight eyes burrowed into his back from the wall of family portraits behind the desk.
‘You lot,’ he turned on them. ‘You can just bugger off. If you’d done your part of the work properly, we wouldn’t be in this fix.’
He found a packet of chewing gum, forgotten behind a set of carefully ordered ledgers in the top drawer of the desk. That would help combat the attack of both cravings – the food and the nicotine – he thought, as he folded the first piece into his mouth.
He puffed up the stairs to the second floor, on a mission to hunt and gather. The spinning, twisting and finishing floors had been out of bounds for years because they were uninsured. The handle was cold and greasy to the touch as he eased open the heavy metal fire door. It clanged him into a place that stopped him dead just inside. Large baskets had been abandoned there full of bobbins and cones of yarn, their colours dulled by a furring of dust. The yarn was ready to be woven into sheets of cloth, but had never made the journey down to the floor below. On a windowsill, a faded ledger had been left open, scribbled with notes of orders and phone numbers of suppliers. The residue in a mug was veneered in mould, and a paperback lay open face down, never finished.
The rows of twisting frames obscured light from the windows, oil-blackened statues marching a funeral procession away to the far end of the hall, their metallic edges softened by sticky dust. The vast room was without movement or voice or life. But the spindles, the gears, the leather belts connecting the machines to the wheels of the overhead drive shafts – it was all supposed to turn and move.
When his father died, George had gone home to Yorkshire. He wanted to believe in his father’s death, witness it himself. But the face ‘at rest’ in the curtained room had shocked him. He was sure he’d been shown to the wrong coffin.
‘It’s not him,’ he’d protested, marching straight back to the funeral director’s office.
‘I’m sorry, sir.’
‘People change. Even after just a few days. Without the breath in them.’
George stared at the man, trying to believe that the prostrate figure in there with the parchment face had been the man he called Da, who liked to down three pints of John Smiths every night at the Golden Fleece and after four, went red in the face and might flutter his fingers on the mouth organ.
He spat out the ball of chewing gum which seemed to be making it hard to breathe, turned and walked away from the twisting machines. The door clashed shut, echoing behind him as he lurched back down the stairs. He lost heart, didn’t venture to the other two floors. He’d never been keen on the top floor anyway. The last time he’d had to go up to get something, he’d found greasy water pooling on the floorboards, rusty machines, and had felt the whole building shudder and sigh up there under the high roof. It had reminded him of a dark plantation of too-close spruce trees he’d once walked through whose straight bare trunks above him swayed and sang against each other like discordant violins.
He couldn’t help thinking, as he got back to Madonna singing about prayers on the little transistor, that if it wasn’t for him, the weaving floor would soon be inert too. The thought weakened his defences, allowing the craving to sink its teeth further, urging him to pound down the stairs, unlock the door, and march out of the gate with the cigarette in his mouth, the strike ready. He needed that comfort, blast and bugger it. But if he left the building now, he’d likely never get back in.
The loom clamoured back into action, its business programmed by the wooden buttons that jumped their way around the belt to direct the pattern – the magical combination of vertical and horizontal that laid threads, meshing them into the subtle diagonals of tweed.
Once the loom was running smoothly, he wandered to the window, lifting a corner of the plastic sheeting that had been stapled over it to try and keep some heat in. The cost of proper double glazing had been a joke. Over the years he’d watched from here the posties’ vans going past; the lady cycling to the Spar with a small dog in her front basket; the old boy with the bent back, passing on his constitutional every day at five to three. But people don’t often think to look up, not unless they have a specific reason to do so.
He could see Rory the joiner still slumped in the driver’s seat of the van with a newspaper. His hand flopped out of the open window holding a cigarette, needling George. Then he turned in his seat and looked directly up. They locked gazes for a moment without any gesture on either part, and then Rory turned back to his newspaper, and raised the hand with the cigarette to his mouth. His chest rose. And then fell.
Rory had come the day before too. There had been bangs on the door, followed by cries of, ‘Open up, George! We’re held up in our other jobs because of you.’ Standing just behind it, George saw how the main door rattled against the bolt he had drawn across inside.
‘Go ahead,’ he’d shouted. ‘Nail me in.’ He turned and stomped back up to the first floor.
Before the phone had been cut off, he’d heard it ring a few times in the office. He answered it once, curious in case it was another order that he might fulfil from his solitary confinement.
‘Knight and Co.,’ he’d said.
‘Don’t be daft, George.’
‘It’s not Knight and Co. anymore now, is it,’ she said softly.
‘I’ve an order to finish.’
‘What are you eating? I’ve made fish and chips.’
‘It’s the Glen Alder tweed.’
‘George.’ There had been a silence in which he thought he heard a tearful gulp. ‘Where on earth are you sleeping?’
‘No shortage of wool bales in here for bedding. I’m tough, like.’
‘Not Indiana Jones though.’ She tried to laugh. ‘Your Last Crusade, is it?’
‘More Nelson Mandela,’ he said.
‘You’re making it your prison in there are you?’
He wanted to get on now, was ready to put the phone down, but she said, ‘I phoned Jo.’
‘He said you were a stubborn old fool.’
‘What would he know?’
‘He is your twin. He said the fish and chips would do it.’
‘I’m not on hunger strike.’ As he said it, the fish and chips swam across his vision for a second too long, trailing a gulp of saliva and a dull whine in his stomach.
‘George,’ she put on her negotiator’s voice. ‘They need to board the place up. I mean. You can’t stay in there for ever. Our garden’ll go to rack and ruin for one thing.’ He listened to a silence, the suggestion of a muffled sob at the end of the line. ‘Are you trying to make yourself a martyr to the place?’ she said.
Worn threads of memory tugged vaguely at him, the frayed ends of rumours from early in the century that reminded him he wouldn’t be the Mill’s first sacrifice. But he thought better of mentioning it. In fact he didn’t wish to think of it, with the dark coming on, and him working alone as the man had been then, according to the stories. Some sort of strike-breaking, he seemed to remember, igniting a fever of anger, that left behind ashes and reek. ‘Come on, love,’ he said.
‘What do you mean, “come on”,’ she shrieked. ‘How could you do this to me?’
‘No need to get your knickers in a twist, duck.’
He put the phone down. The next calls went unanswered and when he’d raised the receiver to his ear that morning, there had been no dialling tone anymore.
He calculated it would take another three hours to complete the length of tweed, if all went well, if there weren’t too many broken threads to mend. He wouldn’t be able to do the finishing or mill it properly, but at least the thing would be woven – his part complete.
He put his hand on the sheet of cloth inching with tiny jumps towards the roller at his knees, felt the thump, thump, thump vibrating through it, consoling and familiar. The length grew through the rhythmic, complex dance of the loom. It intrigued him how this had all grown out of the primitive hand loom and the hand-flicked flying shuttle, until the age of power enhanced it with speed and mechanised patterns. But it had brought costs too. The number of people needed to run the weaving had staggered down and down with changes in fashion and technology, loss of tradition and competition from cheap factories elsewhere in the world, until now they were prepared to let the whole damn thing go.
Back at the window he saw that the sky was darkening, the joiner had gone, presumably without boarding up the door. But now there was a single figure outside, an oval face straining upwards. Hands on hips. The lips were opening and closing and the hands coming up around the mouth. He pulled off his ear defenders but he couldn’t so much hear as see the thin cry, ‘George’. He saw her frantic beckonings, the stab of her finger towards the front door. It felt to him as if he was observing Nancy’s attempts to communicate with someone standing just behind him. He could almost make out the dark mole that decorated her cheek, knew the hunch of her shoulders, the feet that had splayed unevenly as she’d aged. But he felt a distance of centuries between them. He let the plastic flap downwards, and went back to his work.
He would need to spend another night. He was getting tired now, dehydrated perhaps, without his usual mugs of dark sweet tea. He counted the jammy dodgers into piles, each representing a three hour stretch. He could have the pork pie for his evening meal, the last sandwich for his breakfast. He’d drink half the Irn Bru tonight and save the rest for the morning. He was a survivor. He had a strategy. The tweed would get finished.
And then. Bang. The power went off. Lights out. Loom immobile. A rasping intake of breath. Silence.
He glared at the loom in the fading light. He went to the window, saw Nancy still standing there with her hands on her hips, looking at her feet now. He was ready to accuse her. Had she done this to him, colluding with that poofta in Edinburgh and the electric company?
A great weariness hovered and then sank onto his shoulders, pressing him down onto a stool, hands spread on his knees, head bowed. God, for a cigarette now. The craving had begun to have a colour – like the bluebell crossway that had been in action when the power went off, but a more electric version of it. Perhaps it was more like the acidic shades of lime and pink and whatnot that young Knight had bought in. He was going to call it the Greenham Tweed he said, something about celebrating the efforts of those lesbians chaining themselves to the fence to stop Cruise Missiles. He liked to think of it as ‘the spirit of the 80’s’.
Of course it had failed. George could have told him that most people were quite happy for the smelly women to stay chained up, and anyway it was traditional colours customers wanted, not that new garish stuff. The result? – A storeroom full of wasted yarn. A lot of it was already wound onto pirns, ready to go in the shuttles, but had never got that far once they’d realised there was no demand.
Sickness gnawed at his stomach, and there was a drilling at his temples. The pitch of his craving and anger crashed together and seemed to pulse acidic colours in front of his eyes.
He thought of his twin brother, Jo, who’d been forced out of the trade in Yorkshire in much the same way almost a decade before, but had embraced a new life almost immediately. A militant turned salesman. Pathetic really when you thought how he’d fought alongside the Unions all his life and then backed off, got behind the wheel of a Metro and driven off in quite another direction with his air freshener dangling above his head.
Unions had never been a big deal at this mill. It was too small, too family-orientated, too lacking in the tradition of organisation and so far away from the rest of the industry, either in the Borders or in Yorkshire. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t stood up to things. And with a lifetime of it, another ten years on Jo, his old lop-sided shoulders felt like the greased steel beams that held up the place, the industry. How could he give in to the bastards now?
But. No water. No power. A wife jumping up and down outside. Should he just pick up his snap-box, put on his hat, and make his last journey down the worn stone steps that had rung and clattered with so many feet in the past? Should he just open the great door, step out, and let it slam behind him?
A ship’s captain stays on the bridge until the water washes over the very last thing, he thought – the top of his own cap. There was no water here, but there could be fire, at the graze of a match-head. The place would take nothing to go up, soaked as it was in a hundred and sixty years of lanolin and machine oil. Wasn’t temptation pulling him anyway, towards that taboo cigarette? He could leave it to chance, just take no action if a spark from the ash happened to fall on the waiting yarn. He would watch, breathing a tempo with his cigarette, in and out. He took it from the packet again, placed it between his lips. This time he took out the box of matches too, with its own reassuring rattle.
He pictured a flame, running like a small creature along the top edge of the wooden shaft of the loom. It reached the end and then curled downwards along the vertical edge, met the warp threads stretched tight between rollers at front and back. He watched with fascination as the sombre warp sprang into a long taut sheet of colour, mesmerising in red, blue and yellow. It danced up into hungry flames, and started to billow black smoke towards the high ceiling.
Night was creeping in. He took a match from the box and pinched it between thumb and forefinger. Then he carefully replaced cigarette and match into their boxes. The tweed lay still, the length unfinished. He leant forward until his head met the edge of the loom. As his cheek grazed the rough yarn and his breath tickled to and fro the raised hairs of the cheviot wool, he plunged deeply and unexpectedly into sleep.
In his brief dream, he was back in Yorkshire, sitting on a man’s knee, his grandfather’s probably, and they were together flicking the leather whip that sent the shuttle across the hand loom, first one way, then the other. The lazy schlick and schlock of the shuttle banged a soft slow rhythm.
When he woke up it was completely dark. He looked out of the window at an empty orange-lit street. He was the only boss now. He found a torch and went to the storeroom. He knew what he was going to do.
By the time he walked away from the loom with the unlit cigarette clamped in his mouth and a parcel under one arm, the dusk was falling on the following day, and his feet seemed to float above the steps rather than to strike them. Each breath was marked by the bruised rise and fall of his ribs, and his shoulders and arms ached with the effort of his slow and laborious hand-work. He’d eaten the last jammy dodger three hours before.
As he unlocked and stepped out of the heavy front door, he heard a car door slam.
‘How’re you doing, George?’ It was Rory, the joiner, walking towards him with two planks under his arm, a hammer in his hand.
‘Aye,’ said George through tight lips.
‘Had enough now?’
Rory slotted the planks into the brackets he had already fixed to either side of the door and put a hand in his nail belt.
George laid down the parcel and gestured for the hammer. He took a three inch nail from Rory’s hand, held it against the wood, and swung the hammer with his feeble remaining strength, willing himself to hit it square. Bang. It sank deep into the plank. Bang. Bang. Even when the head was virtually vanished under the frayed wood, he continued to swing until Rory nodded at him, put out his hand to take the hammer back, and finished the job.
George picked up the parcel and turned his back on the door, walking with his stiff, stately crookededness along the path and out of the gate. Once on the street, he paused and took the matches from his overall pocket. The strike flared its ribbon through the evening curtain of quiet and gloom. An intoxicating lightness seared through his body with the first breath. Perhaps it was the empty stomach, the days of abstinence, the old frame of his bones swaying towards dereliction, but the lightness swiftly cut away and sweat cooled his forehead instead, his bowels gripping tight in a message of nausea. He clutched the gate post, tried to find a hill, a horizon to steady his tipping gaze on.
He clung to the parcel containing the pattern book with all the last knowledge and mystery of the Mill’s weavers, and the last length of tweed. At one end the tweed matched the bracken and granite he saw now in the hills around him, speckled and subdued by the dusk. But at the other end, in a painful marathon of hand-thrown shuttles, he had woven the blaze of his farewell with its flaming clashes of purple, lemon yellow and pink. No-one would recognise it as tweed except himself.
He watched the ash accumulate at the cigarette tip and crumble onto asphalt, then knocked off the burning end, put it back in the packet for later. For when he had something in his stomach.
Steadied now, he pushed away from the gate post and fixed the Mill with burning eyes. Ranks of darkened windows. The bell tower sparring up brave at one end. But he noticed for the first time the triumphant buddleia straggling from it, its leaves and branches shadowing a smoky haze against the falling sky. It was now the tallest thing on the roof, the new crown.
He turned, started to limp towards home, the cool, damp evening air filling and emptying from his lungs. He could almost smell the fish and chips ahead.
About Linda Cracknell
Linda Cracknell was born in the Netherlands, grew up in the south of England and now lives in Highland Perthshire. She has been a teacher of English in Zanzibar, worked for environmental charity WWF as Education Officer, and was writer-in-residence at Hugh MacDiarmid’s last home, Brownsbank Cottage, near Biggar from 2002-5.
Her short fiction has been widely anthologised and broadcast on BBC Radio. Her first collection, Life Drawing, was published in 2000 after the title story won the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday competition in 1998, and the collection was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award In 2001. She has since written a number of plays for BBC Radio Four, including The Best Snow for Skiing, about Valda Trevlyn Grieve, wife of Hugh MacDiarmid. Linda’s second short story collection The Searching Glance was published in March 2008.
She is currently walking and writing a series of ‘journey-essays’ which follow human stories in ‘wild’ places, a project made possible by the Creative Scotland Award she won in 2007.