Jo Bardsley (Open University, UK)
Cardigan. Aged 4.
My grandmother knits me the cardigan. She sends it in the post; a parcel with my name on it. I am awed. The cardigan is sepia with twisting cables and knotted leather buttons. I will wear it when my class goes to the zoo. The glamour of it all dazzles me; my imagination places me on camelback, wearing my beautiful cardigan, waving at lions from a domed and lofty perch.
The day before the trip, I take the cardigan from the drawer and breathe in the earthy goodness of wool. Its scent is mineral; it speaks of mountain rock; of wild, clean air and of cloud-wet pasture. I draw on the sleeves and here the romance turns, as romance must. The sleeves are tight against my skin, pressing fibre and lanolin into the flesh. Here is barbed wire, bladed grass, burrs and thistles, muddy stubble, nettle stings and bracken burn. I peel the thick fabric from me, wailing and gasping.
I am as betrayed as Jesus by a woolly Iscariot (I know my Bible stories; it is that kind of family). I howl and weep and sob. To distract me, my mother takes me to play at a friend’s house where we collect hairy caterpillars and I bring some home in a jam jar. It turns out I am allergic to hairy caterpillars as well as wool. I come up in a rash and am not allowed to go to the zoo. There is no sound that I can make that is equal to the enormity of my loss. Dry-eyed and silent, I pass the day.
Granny visits us at Christmas and finds the cardigan in my bottom drawer. I know, even at three years old, that the garment represents my grandmother’s pride and love for her first grandchild. She holds it out to me. My head droops. I see her look harden, but I cannot wear it.
Well, she says, well. Her tone could be in a museum, exhibited between whips and tops, alongside pinafores, paddles and rickets. She never makes anything for me again.
St David’s Day Costume. Aged 9.
No one prepared me for how much an English child could be hated in Outback Australia in the 80’s. “I’m not English, I’m Welsh,” I declare with increasing desperation. I have no memories of living in Wales, but I do have a Welsh birth certificate, with a whole other language on it and everything. As proof of non-Englishness, I am aware that it is a little weak, and I can’t think of a good reason to bring it into school.
I do, however, have permission to wear my Welsh national costume to school on St David’s Day, the first of March. But this is 1984, one of the most active cyclone seasons on record.
On the 26th of February, Cyclone Chloe gathers her skirts in the Indian Ocean. She dances offshore opposite Bigge Island before heading south, clipping the Dampier Peninsula. She sets foot on land near Roebourne on the 29th, her thunder thighs carrying her straight for us.
The amber cyclone flag goes up on the hill outside our tiny mining town. The school shuts. My mother drags all three of us to the only store and buys pasta, milk and bread. My father is away, so, while we build a house for our Barbies out of Swan Lager boxes, my mother secures our house, closing cyclone screens, dragging the sailing dinghy into the carport and roping it down. Chloe stomps on us through the night; we feel her not as a circle, but as two distinct solidities of air and water.
On Saint David’s Day, we desert children wake to mud as other children might wake to snow; the bones and folds of our world made strange and delightful. We mould boondies, mud balls, and throw them at each other. We swim in the rusty torrent that had been the mine access road. We do not go to school.
Late in the day, I remember my Welsh costume and track red mud through the house to go and put it on. There are three layers; a crimson skirt sewn to a white vest, a black and white chequered apron and a scarlet jacket. There is also a black bonnet trimmed with white lace. Every single item is made of wool.
I suffered it all just about long enough for a camera shutter to open and close. The slightly blurred picture shows me standing in our sodden backyard; rain-cut rills between the hummocks of grass, my bright red wool against the terracotta dirt, as incongruous and unwelcome as any Victorian lady explorer. I never ask to wear the costume to school again. I never even try to prove I am Welsh again. I accept that my lot in life is to be English and despised.
A scarf. Aged 36.
Marriage, or, as it was then, civil partnership, takes me by surprise. I have never been known so intensely. Don’t wear those knickers, my wife says, you always come home in a bad mood when you wear them. I wear them anyway and stomp all the way home.
She gives me the scarf for Christmas; it is a cornflower blue, as long and wide as her love for me. Again, that smell of good earth and wild places. It is a scarf to weather storms in.
It snows. For four days, London freezes. For four days, I wrap that beautiful scarf around my neck, the cold air dousing the wool’s fire. I place my boots in snow, bringing home pineapple, oranges, milk, flour and eggs to the little terrace cottage we share with a Cornish architect. We have a party. Friends thread their way through a growing population of snow people to our door, arriving flushed and laughing.
On the fifth day, the thaw comes and I must return to work. I put on my coat and reach for the scarf, but I know that I will not be able to bear it. I leave it, a tumble of bright colour amongst the browns, blacks and navies of our crowded coat stand. The path to the station is a sliding misery of dirty slush. On the sixth day, she asks why I’m not wearing the scarf. With sadness I tell her that I can’t. On the seventh day, while I am at work, the scarf vanishes. The real winter sets in, damp and long and dark.
Socks. Aged 42.
My mum finds them in one of those gift shops that smells of dusty roses and lavender, where pretty and pointless things lie in wooden bowls and all the price tags are handwritten, where the shop assistant is a retired teacher and her eyelids crumple into fine folds as she watches you with hopeful expectation, hiding her disappointment when you select a pair of socks rather than spending hundreds on a stoneware jug.
These socks are hand knitted on tiny needles, a soft and slightly fluffy purple. My mum sends this sort of present; so you have something to open on Christmas Day. She also sends generous gift vouchers which I spend on a large silver bin which springs open at a touch and closes as gently as a petal falling.
I think my mother knew once that I am allergic to wool, but she has forgotten it. Generally she forgets nouns; names of people or objects she was looking for. Allergic is an adjective; perhaps she has forgotten wool, the noun. Places she remembers with exasperating clarity. When I was younger and lost, I would call home and specifically ask for my father because her directions would include instructions like turn left at the big house that used to be a post office or it’s by the field that isn’t a field anymore because they built some flats on it. Now I just Google it.
The socks stay in the drawer. They are a reminder that my mother and I don’t know each other physically any more. I remember how she sat still in church, letting my sister and I peel her sunburned skin off in strips during the sermon. I am older now than she was then. We haven’t shared a house since I was seventeen and if I could stitch into one piece all the holidays and visits and camping trips we have spent together since, it would not come to a whole year. We have become a mediated pair; each only existing in digital form for the other, in phone calls, text messages and Facebook pictures. When, in time, one of us dies, the content will stop getting updated.
Perhaps, if the weather is cold enough and I am walking far enough, I can put on two pairs of socks, and, in comfort, wear some wool.
Jo Bardsley is studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the Open University UK. She lives in London with her wife and two daughters.