The Friday Fillip: Winter’s Hem

For the next while the Friday Fillip will be a chapter in a serialized crime novel, interrupted occasionally by a reference you might like to follow up. Both this chapter of the book and the whole story up to this point can be had as PDF files. You may also subscribe to have chapters delivered to you by email.


Chapter 15
Winter’s Hem

It had been a tiring day. Most days were tiring now. But the talk of Jared and of arrangements after her death seemed to have taken even more out of her than the usual business of living.

And it had turned cold as the sun fell, dropping below freezing for the first time this season, the hem of Winter’s skirts touching the ground in the low places, the ditches, the hollows, the furrows of the fall-ploughed fields, a foretaste of the coming anaesthesia.

Gladys Tremaine pulled the eiderdown up tighter under her arms and adjusted the woolen bed jacket she was wearing. The furnace had been running for a few weeks now, but that didn’t seem to provide much warmth in her bedroom.

It seemed likely to her that when Winter arrived this time, all teasings and tocsins finally done, the great destroyer would find that, the rusty spring on the old screen door creaking one last time, she had slipped out the back to rest safe below the frost line, there to be out of reach forever. She smiled at the thought of fooling Winter that way. Forever.

Gazing ahead at nothing, she touched the book that lay on the eiderdown to her left, letting her hand read the bumps of the artwork in the cover and contemplating whether she would pick it up or whether she would knit instead. In the pleasant stillness of her indecision, she heard with small attention the sound of the loose hasp on the shed door tapping in the wind and once in a while going ping as it was switched back to hit the staple on the other side. The wind, she thought idly, you couldn’t really hear the wind any more than you could see it. You only hear the sound that things made when stroked by the air, like the stubborn leaves on the oak tree outside the window that fluttered and snapped at the ends of their twigs.

She remembered for no reason — recollections came to her more and more without prompting now; some other Gladys operating inside her, riffling through the cards in the catalogue, fixing on this or that moment in the way a crow’s eye will be caught by a bauble — she remembered a house that they had occupied in which there was a fireplace in the bedroom and how Harold would complain at having to get out of bed on cold evenings to poke it and feed it, and how she had said to him, time and again, if he would sleep in the nude he was going to be cold. And how much she delighted in watching his nude body in the firelight.

Now there was no Harold or firelight but only a book and her knitting and a forty watt bulb in the bedside lamp.

She blinked. There was no use in being maudlin. All of that was a long time ago. And to look on the bright side, the lamp gave off a comforting yellow glow, so that if you lowered your eyelids you might imagine that there was a fire in a fireplace. Too, Harold had his demerits, let us not forget that. It hadn’t been all cakes and ale, not by a long chalk. So what if it was beans and bacon now? And books. And knitting. These were solid, honest, good and useful things. They sustained.

Her right hand moved onto her knitting.

She ran a finger up the yarn and felt it catch a little on the roughness of her skin. Old hands. What was it her mother used to say? I’m as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth. Well, a part of her felt younger than her hands, younger than any piece of her actual body, in fact, as though — what? As though she were eternal? Frozen at some moment of imaginary youth? Yet another Gladys inside her, she thought. The mad one at the memory catalogue and this one, the clingy Gladys who was reluctant to die. If she wasn’t careful, she told herself, she’d wind up crowding an already overpopulated earth with all these Gladyses.

She shifted her attention and heard a car go by two roads over. And then a dog barked and barked. That would be Reg’s Jack Russell. Yappy little thing. Always jumping up. Good with the rats, though. A real killer. Surprising for something so small.

That decided it for her. It would be knitting tonight. She was working on a scarf for Reg, a small way of repaying him for his kindnesses to her — driving her into town, carrying her groceries, doing the odd thing that needed doing around the place to keep it water tight and wind tight.

She picked up her work — almost a yard of knitted scarf — positioned the ball of yarn, stroked out some slack, felt the needles seek out their proper places in her grip, and began the click-clack clockwork motions that magicked a filament into cloth.

Leaving her hands to do their work, she let her mind think of fate, as she often did when starting to knit. She had always liked the fact that mythology made fate into three women manipulating thread, Fates that even the gods had to obey. She could never quite remember their names, but that didn’t matter. She knew who they were. Every woman did, she thought. She was in them, all three of them, in the way that the peculiar turns on Gladys were inside her. Spinner, measurer, cutter. Life in her hands. Jared’s life perhaps.

She gave the yarn a tug to liberate more from the ball.

And suddenly she was overcome with torpor. Not even realizing that she was doing it, she clicked off the light and passed into sleep, leaving everything exactly as it had been.

Rural dark, true dark.

Lit eventually by her dreams. Shelving books, spine after spine in her hands, all dun, titles difficult to read.

Black once more, with the sound of some night bird and yet higher into the sky the thin thrum of a jet plane passaging from nowhere to nowhere.

Jared danced and fell and danced again and everything was white and she was worried and joyful at one and the same time.

The softest cracking sound, a scrape, nigh inaudible.

Something silly with shapes, coloured shapes. Just that. No Gladys.

He came into her bedroom so slowly he might not have been moving at all. The pulse was beating in the roof of his mouth and reflexively he tried to swallow it away, nor any water in his mouth to take it down. He felt the iron band tighten across his chest and down his arms. And he wondered briefly, as before, whether this was a form of pleasure. Or not.

Harold appeared, not naked, but wearing work clothes and smelling of male sweat. He was doing something wrong. She was scolding, remonstrating, and young.

Something creaked. A board below the rug was let back to true with infinite care. And still the night persisted. Distances halved are crossed forever.

Until with a spurt he was on her, pressing a pillow over her face, leaning into the killing. She spasmed. Jerked. Brought her legs up, tried to arch. Old machinery failing quickly. Neck back. Arching. Both arms up with force, terrible force.

And the needle happened into his belly, into him.

He gasped, loosened his grip, stumbled over her, falling forward. Driving the long needle home against the bed. Into him. Unto his death.

All the while the Jack Russell had been barking, barking.


© Simon Fodden


What Do Smurfs & The US Senate Have in Common?

Probably not what you’re thinking — though that might be true as well. No, we’ll get to my answer in a roundabout way, just for the fun of it. And, of course, I’ll tie it in to today’s chapter quite neatly for a change. 

It begins with Dickens (as this novel did, by the way, the opening word “tittlebat” being the link to Boz’s PIckwick Papers) and his terrible tricoteuse, Madame Defarge, to establish a solid connection to knitting and death. We meet her in Chapter V, The Wine Shop, where she sits, knits, and “sees nothing.” She is present, observes, and keeps the register of those who must die, literally knitting their names into her work. One of the Fates, indeed. Her husband, owner of the wine shop, says at one point: “It would be easier for the weakest poltroon that lives, to erase himself from existence, than to erase one letter of his name or crimes from the knitted register of Madame Defarge.”

The tricoteuses were no mere figment of Dickens’s imagination. As the French Revolution gathered momentum and about the time of the Reign of Terror, when things were uncertain and forces were loosed and might not be easily controlled, one of those forces were the working class women of Paris. They banded together; their groups took to the streets; their voices were loud and often . . . unpleasing, even to the leaders of the revolution. This was a rough Marianne, many times over. So rough, in fact, that a party of women appealed to the newly formed Convention Nationale, complaining that these groups of women militants (“adventuresses, female knights-errant, emancipated girls, and amazons,” one legislator called them, intending to disparage) were forcing them to wear certain revolutionary garb. This triggered a broader discussion in the assembly of the political role of women, leading to a general repression of women within the revolution, and to a decree that: 

“No person of either sex may constrain any citizen or citizeness to dress in a particular manner. Everyone is free to wear whatever clothing or adornment of his sex seems right to him, on pain of being considered and treated as a suspect and prosecuted as a disturber of public peace.”

The “female knights errant,” banned from gathering, were left to sit sullenly in public, often at the newly inaugurated guillotine, knitting, knitting. And what were they knitting? What had they tried to force on other women and men? 

The red Phrygian cap, that conical hat with the tip pulled forward over the head, glorified (mistakenly) as an ancient symbol of freedom. 

That’s the link between Smurfs and the US Senate. Belgian Smurfs (Schtroumpfs in their homeland) adopted the Phrygian cap, perhaps because it’s thought the old Gauls and Anglo-Saxons wore it. And the US Senate stuck one near the head of its official seal, in honour of either roving bands of angry women or out of some mistaken understanding of the cap’s ancient history. But there it sits, atop the flag and the fasces.


UPDATE: I’ve just come across this vid of a movie knitted into a scarf, frame by frame. Apparently, it’s already a city block long, so take that, Mrs. Deforge! Here, then, is your lagniappe with your treat with your fillip:

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