Untying the Knot

Order the ebook from iBooks UK

Order the ebook from iBooks US

Chapter One

I stitch memories. That’s what I do. Not mine, other people’s. I capture them in cloth, thread and ink. I fix them, like insects in amber. The moment, imprinted on the memory, is printed on the cloth, then embellished and decorated.

That’s what we do.

Embellish.

Decorate.

Unvarnished truth has only limited appeal. Some events are a joy to recall, but others are best modified, even forgotten. They live in some lumber-room of the mind, housed somewhere you wouldn’t want to go alone and never after dark.

If I make a mistake in my work or if I change my mind, I can unpick. Undo what I’ve done. I can make good my errors and no one is the wiser. If they looked, even through a magnifying glass, all observers would see would be the tiny holes where my needle had travelled. I can erase even that evidence by scratching carefully at the weave of the linen with my needle, until the holes are no longer visible.

But life isn’t like that. Mistakes once made are rarely reversible. The holes they leave in the fabric of life aren’t tiny and they can’t be scratched away. You have to live with them as best you can. Work round them. That’s why you have to come to terms with memory. You can’t obliterate the past or eradicate it from the mind, even when, for our own good, memory enfolds us in a blanket of forgetfulness. There are always traces left, marks where time gripped us and left its telltale fingerprint.

***

Linda pictured with her son, Ralph, her new daughter-in-law,
Jen & husband Philip, August 2011.

Fay looked round the brightly lit gallery. It was a good turnout, better than she’d hoped. Not bad for a wet Wednesday in Glasgow. The punters were mostly female, but that was always the case with textiles, an essentially female art and, in the opinion of some, only a craft. In their quietly sensuous and tactile way, textiles appealed more to women than men, so the man standing alone in front of one of her wall hangings might have caught Fay’s eye anyway, even if he hadn’t been a head taller than most of the women milling round him; even if that head had not been crowned by an untidy mane of dark greying curls.

He’d been standing for some minutes now, regarding a large work depicting an oak tree that in turn represented a family tree, festooned with portraits. The man didn’t approach the work, but even when someone walked between him and the textile picture, his concentration didn’t appear to falter. Out of the corner of her eye, Fay registered a journalist making his way toward her, his wine glass empty, his expression irritable. Since she regarded journalists as no more than a necessary evil, Fay set down her own glass, picked up a catalogue and approached the man who was studying her work so intently.

She strode across the polished wooden floor, a diminutive figure, confident in her high heels, a hint of challenge in her intelligent grey eyes. Fay was of an age difficult to determine from a distance, but at close quarters her hands, laden with chunky rings, betrayed her as being in her forties. She was dressed in neutral shades of linen and silk and wore heavy ceramic jewellery. Rust-coloured earrings swung from small, neat ears, drawing attention to elfin features and a stark, uncompromising cap of auburn hair. Standing at the man’s side, she lifted her chin and said, ‘Good evening. Would you like a catalogue?’

It was a second or two before he turned to acknowledge her presence. He looked down at the catalogue, extended toward him.

‘Och, no thanks. I don’t like being told what to think,’ he added amiably.

Fay was distracted by the pale blue eyes, large and unsettling. The hair – so much of it! – obviously once black, was now brindled with grey, but the artist in her couldn’t help admiring the classical regularity of feature that might once - twenty years ago perhaps - have betokened beauty.

‘It isn’t that sort of catalogue,’ she explained. ‘This is just titles, dates, methods of construction, that sort of thing. And prices of course.’

He inclined his leonine head. ‘Of course.’ He returned to his examination of the piece. ‘The likenesses . . . They’re very good.’

‘They would be. They’re transferred from photographs. But the likeness isn’t the point.’

‘I didn’t say it was. The feeling’s the point, is it not?’

She hesitated, suddenly thrown. ‘Yes. That is the point.’

He shot her a sidelong glance, suspicious. ‘Will your catalogue tell me what to feel?’

She ignored the question and said, ‘You like Root and Branch then?’

‘That’s what it’s called? This piece? “Like” isn’t the word.’

‘What is?’

‘It . . . disturbs me.’

‘Oh, good. You must like being disturbed.’

‘Not at all. Why d’you assume that?’

‘You’ve been standing here for some time now.’

‘You’ve been watching me?’

She faltered, caught off-guard. Keeping her voice even, but avoiding his eye, she said, ‘No, I haven’t been watching you, but I’d registered you hadn’t moved. On average people spend about thirty seconds in front of a piece before moving on to the next, so you tend to notice if anyone stops for longer. And you were very noticeable because – well, because you obscure so much of the piece.’

His eyebrows shot up under the curling fringe. Very Charles II, she thought. Or was it more Brian May? Either way, at his age, quite ridiculous. Were good-looking men always vain, she wondered?

‘I’m obscuring your piece?’

‘Yes. Your height. And — and your hair.’ She tried to keep the note of disapproval out of her voice and failed.

‘I’d better move on then.’

As he turned away, she blurted out, ‘You don’t want to buy it then?’

‘No, thanks. Much as I like it. I’ll wait till they turn it into a book jacket. Or a greetings card.’

Stung, she replied sharply, ‘This one isn’t for sale anyway. It was made as a gift.’

‘And who is to be the lucky recipient?’

‘My mother-in-law. My ex-mother-in-law, I should say.’

He nodded and she watched as the preposterous curls bobbed. ‘She’ll love it, no doubt. The wee boys look bonny . . . Well, I hope you manage to sell a few of the others,’ he said, sounding doubtful.

‘If you cared to look in the catalogue, you’d see quite a few are already sold.’

The eyebrows rose again. ‘Congratulations.’ He said nothing more and turned away to scrutinise another picture.

She glared at his shabby corduroy back. ‘You know, only one of my pieces has been turned into a book jacket. And as for greetings cards, everybody does it now. Vettriano made that quite respectable.’

He turned mocking blue eyes toward her. ‘We can look forward to a calendar then?’

She arranged her features in a gracious and, she hoped, condescending smile. ‘Perhaps if you’d ever tried to earn a living from selling art, your attitude might be rather different.’

Do you earn a living?’

‘Yes, I do. Though that’s none of your business.’

‘Indeed, it’s not. But I was interested. I’m glad you do. You deserve to. Your work is . . .’

‘Disturbing?’

‘Deeply felt. And moving.’

She blushed and felt immediately foolish. ‘Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome.’

She put her fingers to her temple and rubbed. ‘I’m sorry. Sorry I was so — so touchy. It’s been a long day. And I’ve taken a lot of flak about that wretched book jacket. But I thought it was a perfectly appropriate use of my work. It was a memoir after all.’

‘And it can’t have done you any harm that it turned out to be a best-selling memoir.’

‘Apparently some readers bought it for the jacket. Interest in that was what made my work take off.’

‘Aye, I read all about it in The Herald. It was a good photograph.’

‘Of the jacket?’

‘Of you.’ He regarded her steadily.

Nonplussed, she thrust the catalogue toward him. ‘Here, take this. I don’t think there’s any chance of it telling you what to think. Or feel.’

‘How much—’

She waved a hand. ‘Forget it.’

‘I won’t forget the piece,’ he said, taking the catalogue. ‘Thank you.’

As Fay turned away, she came face to face with a smiling young woman, juggling wine glass, catalogue and a battered bunch of lilies.

‘Hi, Mum! Sorry I’m late. I got held up in traffic. These are for you.

‘Emily! Lovely to see you!’ Fay embraced her daughter gingerly, careful to avoid both wineglass and lily pollen. ‘I’m so glad you could make it. I wasn’t really expecting you.’

Over her mother’s shoulder, Emily registered the tall man regarding them both quizzically. As her eyes widened, his smile became a grin. She straightened up suddenly, spilling white wine and scattering lily petals.

‘Dad! Fancy seeing you here!’

***

Magnus McGillivray doesn’t look like anyone’s idea of a hero, even if he does live in a castle with everyone’s idea of a princess. When we divorced, he got the ruin and I got the garret. We were both happy with this division of spoils, in so far as one is ever happy after a divorce. There had been no infidelities, but as far as I was concerned, the other women in my husband’s life were the Army and - when he finally dumped the Army – Tullibardine Tower.

Tullibardine Tower drained my husband’s love, energy and money for years. No mistress could have been more demanding, more all-consuming. In the end I stopped trying to compete. I knew my limitations. Given a choice between a romantic ruin, crumbling away on a Perthshire hillside and a struggling artist, crumbling away - not quite so romantically - in a Glasgow tenement, which do you think a war hero with an over-developed sense of duty and an irrational desire to atone would choose?

And he did.

So I said I was leaving.

And I did.



It was the best thing that could have happened to me. (Well, that’s what people said. Perhaps they say that to all new divorcées.) I was able to pursue my new-found career as a textile artist and I rediscovered what it was to live in a small but comfortable, permanent home, after years in Army accommodation, then a caravan on site beside the ruinous Tully Tower, as it came to be not very affectionately known.

I suppose if Magnus had had any real aspiration to creature comforts, he would never have joined the Army in the first place, let alone thrived on postings to the Falklands, Belfast and the Gulf. He understood but didn’t share my craving for warmth, light and colour. For peace. It was a good day for Magnus if nobody was trying to kill him. (His exasperatingly sunny personality needs to be seen in that appalling context.)

I understood Magnus. I loved him. But in the end, I just couldn’t live with him. A familiar story, you might think, but some friends and family saw things differently. Wives are meant to stand by their man – Army wives particularly. And I didn’t. I walked away. I walked away from a war hero.

It was a long, at times agonising walk. It wasn’t as if I was walking into the arms of a new love. I couldn’t even persuade my teenage daughter to come with me. I felt like the loneliest woman in the world. I think I was only able to do it because Magnus understood why I was going. That was possibly the hardest part. The lack of recriminations.

But Magnus knew all about The Long Walk. And feeling like the loneliest man in the world.

***

A bomb disposal technician at work

In the dream he’s walking. He’s walking as if he has all the time in the world; as if he’s out for a stroll on a Sunday afternoon. Except there’s nobody else out on the streets. No one at all. And there’s no sound, just his own footsteps on the tarmac as he approaches a parked car. And he’s not dressed for a Sunday stroll. He’s wearing an armoured suit. A suit that stinks of sweat and fear.

In the dream, the car never gets any nearer. He just keeps walking and thinks about mercury tilt switches and tremblers and pressure plates. Booby traps. He thinks in clichés, about how this time his number might be up, it might be his turn, he’s had a good run for his money. In the dream he thinks of Fay and wee Emily and that’s how he knows it’s a dream. He never used to think of them. You stayed focused. You just thought about the job. So he knows there’s nothing at all to worry about, it’s just a bloody dream.

He approaches the car, calmer now, the adrenalin subsiding, his breathing finally steady. But as he lays his hand on the car door handle and starts to open it, he realises this isn’t a dream, this is for real. And it’s a trap.

The last thing he feels is moving air, the shock as it perforates his eardrums and collapses his lungs; the waves of energy as they enter his mouth, his nostrils, his eyes and his ears, destroying his body even before his limbs are torn off and flung across the street, before his already dead flesh is stripped from his bones and tossed into the air. His last thought before annihilation is not for his wife and child, but for the poor bastards who’ll have to clean up the mess.

***