To set the scene I wrote this at the end of a long winter. It was that special time of year when winter finally looks like she is packing her bags and leaving.
As the sun rose I was sipping tea in the kitchen and wondering about the day ahead. I glanced towards the outside thermometer. It read sixteen degrees! Could that be possible, was winter, with her endless cold days departing?
I took my tea and went to explore. I opened the front door and a warm wind greeted me like an old friend. I spent the next half an hour in my jim-jams slowly walking around the garden taking in the first real spring day.
Everything was on the move. The birds were noisily gathering twigs for new nests. The plants were all ready as if they were at the starting line of a race for the new season, about to charge off with a furious spurt of growth.
I was totally entranced by Mother Nature and was examining the outstretched petals of a yellow celandine when a voice flew over the gate. “See you haven’t lost your Christmas belly yet Alex!”
Instinctively I pulled in my stomach but that loosened my pyjama bottoms. I stopped, realising it would be far better to show my postman a fat belly than the family jewels!
The jim-jams stayed put as I grabbed the post from his hand and grunted. “Well look at you in your shorts this time of year—you’re like a schoolboy!” I replied, spilling a bit of my tea in frustration. He walked off with a smile and a wave whistling Oh what a beautiful morning.
With the wind singing through the trees and the lark on the wing I hit the road to my first customer and her troublesome Singer Centenary 221.
“Ah, come in Mr Askentoff,” Mary said as she opened the door. That’s about as close as anyone gets to my name I thought as I went in.
“Call me Alex and I’ll call you Mary if that’s okay?”
“Fine Alex. Come and see Brutus! I call my machine Brutus because it’s a brute. I hate this machine. Don’t hate many things but I have hated this machine for 50 years.”
“Surely not Mary! It can’t be that bad.”
I was wrong. She went on to give me graphic details of all the times the machine had failed, all the garments ruined… all the tears… and, in the end…. Hate!
“My dad taught me one thing when I was young, before he went off to war and didn’t come back, he used to say buy cheap buy twice! Remembering that, I have always bought the best and this machine was the best the shop had to offer. It cost me 50 pounds! Almost a pound for every year I have cried over it. I’ve taken it to four Singer shops but eventually given up as it has never worked any better when I got it back. Once I was so angry I put it on the floor and was about to stamp on it when my husband caught me. He gave me a right telling off. I felt like a little kid. I was sixty at the time. At school they nicknamed me Mad Mary. Now I’m older I can see why!”
After hearing Mary’s troubles I decided that I needed to change tack as Mary seemed to be working up a sweat and the last thing I wanted on this perfect spring day was a trip to the hospital. “Mary you get the kettle on and I’ll take Brutus apart and see what’s wrong.”
It didn’t take long. The problem was obvious. A manufacturing fault had left a bit of the casting rubbing against the automatic tension release, randomly jamming it. This would mean it would work, or not, depending whether or not the thread was in the tension unit properly. By the time Mary was back with the drink I was well into repairing it. Being so erratic it had been banished to the back of the cupboard for years at a time. The result was a near-perfect machine that looked as if it was purchased yesterday.
“How did you get into sewing Mary?”
“Well that’s a first!” I laughed.
“Everyone told me I just had growing pains. I was still a teenager when they had diagnosed arthritis. My old quack prescribed two aspirin a day, three spoonfuls of cod-liver oil and gentle exercise. Before cycle machines were available a sewing treadle was a perfect substitute. My mum knew, from school, that I didn’t like sewing because I made such a mess of my school sewing but she never said anything, just let me use her treadle. When part of the school burnt down, including the sewing wing, I laughed so hard and sung all the way to school for a good month after.
For the first few days I sat at home and treadled away, watching the machine turn round and round, bored senseless. It was not long before I thought I could be making something as well as sitting at the machine treadling. It was then that my mum, who had already cut out a skirt for me, taught me how to sew.
She was not so silly, my mum, patience was her virtue. Something I have never had. It took me a week to get the damn thing to start in the right direction, did I curse! Mind you only when mum was not in earshot. Treadling with no fabric in it made no difference which way the machine turned. Once it was threaded and there was material under the foot it had to go the right way or jam. It was like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. Still, I got the hang of it and never stopped.
And so things turned completely around and I learnt to love the sound of a treadle machine rocking and stitching. The sound can still bring a tear to my eye as quickly as a cold breeze in winter. There are so many memories all wrapped around the old treadle machines. You could say that the sewing machine sings the music of my youth.
About ten years ago doctors found out that I have an overactive thyroid causing me to be really moody and a terrible fidget. That explained my moods as a child. I can’t sit still for a moment. Still that’s how I got into sewing.”
“Well Mary, when I’ve finished you’ll have to treat this machine like a new one and find it a new name because it’ll sew like it has never sewn before.”
“Believe that when I see it,” she snarled at the machine.
An hour later Mary was a convert. She had sewn everything from pure silk to five layers of denim without a hitch. “It’s beautiful Alex, really beautiful. I am so happy I could kiss you.”
Before I knew it Mary gripped me around the neck and planted a huge kiss, smack on my lips! “Mary you naughty girl,” I stuttered, “what’s my wife going to say?”
“I won’t tell if you don’t!” She laughed.
I escaped from Mary’s with a flushed face and a feeling of satisfaction that you only get from a good job well done.
Before long I was rolling down Dog Kennel Lane towards an old farm along Criers Lane. The farmer shook my hand warmly and ushered me to his ailing machine. “Do all me own sewing,” he announced as we got to the Frister Star on his table. “Have done for 60 years.”
As I worked away I listened to how he had sold the family farm after his first heart attack at the age of 68. His only condition of sale was that he be allowed to live in the farmhouse at a fixed rent until his death. It seemed a pretty safe bet that he would not last much longer so the deal was struck.
“He was in such a rush to grab the cheap deal but it came back to bite him,” he said with a defiant smirk. “You know what they say? Act in haste, repent at leisure. Twenty years later I’m still on the same rent. I bet you that the landowner gets down on his knees every night and begs for me to die.
“Don’t help him much as every day I wake up and find myself still here. First thing I do every morning, when I open my eyes and realise I’ve been given another day, is smile. I reckon you can measure life by many things, money, assets even wives but none is better than a smile. I have always had more smiles in my life than tears boy.”
I could not help but like the old farmer who had found himself in such an enviable position. He reminded me of my dad—and you know what it is like when you see someone who looks like a person you like—you can’t help but like them as well.
I was just thinking how right he was when he returned with a cup of tea. It was so strong that it was almost black. When it arrived I looked down at the cup and then up at his smiling face.
“That do you boy?” He asked handing me the cup.
“Lovely job. Fine. Yes, thanks. That’s just what the doctor ordered.”
I stopped work and took a sip. I nearly spat it out. It was like licking the creosote off a telegraph pole! God only knows what he had made it with.
I left the cup on the side until he popped out of the room. Quick as a flash I opened the window and threw the contents of the cup out. I sat down just as he returned. “Another cup boy?” He asked seeing that I had finished the first.
“Oh no! Not for me really. But thanks anyway.”
“It was a real experience,” I added quietly under my breath.
His machine, which had been disabled—well sabotaged really—by inserting an old Willcox Victorian needle into the shaft and knocking the timing out, was soon fixed. Farmers have the amazing habit of trying to make something out of anything they have to hand.
“It’s all about what you know boy, that’s the secret of success in business. There’s an old joke I used to tell it went like this.... A man pushes his broken car into a garage. He asked the garage owner if he could take a look at the car to see if he could get it going. The garage owner looks around the car then under the bonnet, and then strokes his chin. He then goes and gets a big hammer. He returns and gives the starter motor a good whack. The owner turns the key and bingo! The car starts. The garage owner then says… that’ll be twenty pounds.”
“Twenty pounds!” The owner shouts. “All you did was whack the starter motor. I’m not paying you twenty pounds for that!”
“You’re not paying me twenty pounds for hitting the motor. You’re paying me nineteen pounds for knowing where to hit it and one pound for hitting it!”
“See its all in the knowing lad, all in the knowing,” he finished, grinning at me across the table like a wide-mouth frog..
After I had fixed his machine he sneakily talked me into altering his trousers for him. They needed to fit an expanding waistline. Something that I had considerable sympathy with!
As I left the house I noticed a terrible brown stain on the grass under the window. I just hoped that the grass would survive my tea until the rain rescued it!
I waved from the car and drove back up the track towards Uckfield and my next customer. In the back were a dozen fresh eggs and a bag of spring onions that had been dug that morning. I couldn’t help but wonder how many more years the landowner would be on his knees begging for the old farmer to pop his clogs!
In Uckfield I called at a retirement home, Grants Hill. Before the home was built there stood an old house. It became notorious as one of the last places our most villainous British lord was seen alive.
On 7 November 1974 the legend of the infamous missing lord began. The story says that Richard Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, wrapped some surgical tape around a piece of lead pipe and entered his Belgravia home. He battered the nanny to death and left his wife seriously injured. He escaped and sped from his London home to friends at Grants Hill in Uckfield.
There he told them a story that he had seen another man attack the nanny but had failed to stop him! Covered in blood, with his wife running down the street screaming murder, he panicked and bolted. Some story!
A nationwide search started and police scoured the country. Three days later the Ford Corsair he had been driving was found abandoned in the seaside port of Newhaven. Inside was another piece of lead pipe wrapped with tape! It became obvious that he had made good his escape from Britain and, to this day, has never been found. He had disappeared into thin air.
I knocked on Esther’s door expecting her usual greeting. The door opened slowly and I looked down at the diminutive Esther, all four-foot-ten inches of her. She used to be five-foot-one in her prime but time has taken its toll and three precious inches have departed. She always saw the bright side and often laughed that her lower centre of gravity kept her safely on her feet. She walked with the help of a zimmer frame which she had nicknamed her Ferrari!
All her sewing nowadays is to adjust her clothes. Being so small she had always made her own and is an accomplished seamstress. Although she used several machines she had never managed to master her latest troublesome machine.
Esther went off to finish her breakfast, a bowl of prunes, “I won’t be long. I think today I will be marrying a beggar man! I have already found six pips, and you know how the saying goes? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief. Last week I was married to a rich man and a tailor so I mustn’t complain too much.”
I heard Ester laugh and the light clink of her metal spoon on her bowl. “Gives me a laugh and keeps me regular too!” She shouted.
When Esther returned I happened to mention about Lord Lucan. “They’ll never find him, Lord Lucan never went nowhere,” said Esther. “I remember that night as if it were yesterday. What the papers don’t tell you is that same night that he disappeared there were shots heard coming from the house. Lots of people heard them and reported them to the police. No one ever investigated—so close to bonfire night, see! The police must have assumed it was kids with bangers or hoax calls. I wouldn’t be surprised if they find his bones, one day, under the foundations of this place. Probably shot himself after realising what he had done and someone moved the car to distract the police and press from the house.”
“Well that’s a theory and a half Esther.” I announced. “We shall just have to see if he ever turns up.”
I left wondering about the old tale and the new slant Esther had given the story. I glanced around the property as I drove off, looking for a good spot where the body of our most infamous lord might be hiding.
My next call had me sewing an insert into the left cup of a bra! That was after I had removed the marble that her grandson had pushed into her machine. I was calling on a woman who had had a mastectomy. I sewed away and tried not sew over the wire insert in the bra. After a few tense moments I passed her the bra. She held it up and announced that I had done a fine job. I was most impressed with my work as few people realise that I do not sew well. There is a lot of difference between fixing a machine and using one! Rather like a racing mechanic and a racing driver, two very different skills.
I watched as she slipped a prosthetic into the new pocket. I did not wait to see what it looked like when she was wearing it but she was delighted with her machine and my sewing!
“My next job is new knicker elastic,” she giggled as I left. “I was walking by the church last Friday and I felt them slip. I had to say good morning to the vicar with one hand on my knickers, most embarrassing!”
By now it was late morning and I turned my beast from its furthest call and headed toward home. I had a call in the pretty hamlet of Berwick then another near Cuckmere Haven on the coast.
The spring day was just inspiring. It was a truly a gift after winter and coming so close to the Spring Equinox. It was just too perfect to waste. I parked and walked up the soft grassy slopes of the South Downs to a viewpoint overlooking the English Channel. I sat on one of the famous chalk hills of the Seven Sisters called Haven Brow and stared out to sea.
The coastal cliffs stood proud, welcoming the warm breeze that still held a touch of winter’s dying breath. She was on her way out, pushed by an ever-eager spring and it would be many months before she would bring her biting frosts back to these hills.
The breeze shook the early spring flowers. Patches of primrose leaped out from the grassy tufts and cowslips elbowed their way through to get a peek at the beautiful sunny day. A small clump of snowdrops or Fair maids of February danced a little jig to the delicate music of the wind.
I heard my first cuckoo or Gowk as Sussex folk call them. I subconsciously shook my loose change, something I had done ever since I was a kid and first heard the old tale. Folklore tells that if you shake your money when you hear the cuckoo you will never run out of cash. It has always worked for me!
The shaggy Sussex sheep were still in their thick winter coats and nursing tiny lambs that could have been only a few hours old. I sat breathing in the delicious scent that is unique to these parts as it rolls off the open sea and combines with the wild flowers, herbs and grasses of the downland.
I have always thought that there are a few people in history that shape the time in which they pass leaving their mark for others. One such person was William Wordsworth. In the last year of his life he came here to sit here and contemplate. He wrote…There is no more precious gift than this. That was in 1850 and it is as true today as ever.
The beauty that lay before me was priceless. The white cliffs stretching out along the coast in a curve towards Brighton were being lapped by an emerald sea that, in turn, was being stroked by a warm westerly wind full of the scents of far-away lands.
Birling Gap, with its untamed sea and ancient cliffs, is where heaven and earth meet in an intoxicating mix of wild abandon. On such a day it was clear to me that Mother Nature had crafted some of her finest work in this special place.
I lay back on the warm grass and crossed my legs. My left hand ruffled the grass. It felt like I was running my hand through a giant’s rough hair. I gazed up at the priceless sky where little clouds of whites and greys, blues and yellows played. In a moment I was whisked back to my childhood. We’ve all had those precious times, laying in the sun the warmth on your face, the sound of life all around. Life doesn’t get any better than those simple moments. I thought if the last thing I saw on earth was the glimmering sea under a blue sky I would die a happy man.
I lent on one arm. About half a mile out at sea, rocking on a bed of diamonds, I could see the small fishing craft that Brian and Jeff used. This time of year they would be after flat fish, patiently biding their time waiting for the lobsters and bass to return with the warmer waters that would soon follow. I knew they would be sitting silently in their boat. They spoke little and never wasted a precious word, so typical of old-Sussex folk.
I could have remained on Haven Brow forever but time was passing and I had a niggling thought that I had to be somewhere. I strolled back to the car brushing the grass off my clothes as I went and drove the twisting road along Beachy Head, towards home. On my way passing the council workers who were once more removing the snowdrift fencing from the downland. A yearly job and a pleasant one.
“Alex, where have you been?” Said a flustered Yana. “We have to be at the theatre in 20 minutes and there is a man waiting for you. He is a dry-stone waller! Whatever that is! He has driven all the way down from North Yorkshire and has a huge machine in his old truck for you to fix. Apparently you are the only person who can do it!”
“Bung the kettle on while I talk to him,” I said walking in to meet the customer.
“All she needs is a little fettlin’ lad.” He pronounced plonking a huge Singer model 45 onto my workbench as if it weighed nothing.
Fettlin’, fettlin’? I had no idea what that meant but I could see he was serious! I examined the rusty old machine that had not worked for years. I sighed knowing that my next few evenings would be taken up cleaning, oiling and setting the huge brute to get it to stitch.
It turned out he needed a machine to sew through three strips of thick leather. He had found the machine, by the looks of it under one of his stone walls. Now all he needed was someone who could get it to work! That someone was me!
He left after shaking my hand so powerfully my whole body shook. The shuddering went up my arm along my shoulder and then I felt my neck click! Dry-stone walling must have given him muscles no normal people have. I had never shaken a hand so firm or held a grip so hard. It was like clutching the end of an iron drainpipe that had come loose in a hurricane. I waved him off from the gate and stretched my neck, rubbing it as I went indoors.
My working day was nearly over. I relaxed and slowly unwound at the theatre watching Arsenic and Old Lace being beautifully performed, and listening to the hearing aids of the Eastbourne old-brigade crackle and whistle. Eastbourne might be getting a younger demographic, with lots of families moving here, but they were not at the Devonshire Park Theatre on that Wednesday afternoon!
In the evening, armed with a cup of tea, I headed for my garage. I saw the celandine that had been fully open in the morning sunshine had folded up its tiny petals and gone to sleep, bathed in a soft light from the full-spring moon.
A few clouds scurried across the night sky as I closed the garage door and turned on the lights and radio. Eva Cassidy warmed the workshop with her perfect supple tones and I thought about the customers I had seen on our first spring day. Once again during my travels I had met so many characters; all wonderful, all individual and all so unique. The diversity of the human race never ceases to amaze me.
We are all here for such a short period, tiny grains in the endless shifting sands of time and will soon be forgotten. But today, this glorious spring day, I had touched some lives, seen snippets of different worlds and lived new experiences. I had captured a moment where all these people exist, they live, they breathe—as do I.
I worked on the big old brute of a machine that my Yorkshire man had dropped off earlier. Its owner was probably bombing up the motorway heading for the moors and home, the steering wheel of his old Morris pick-up gripped with his hands of iron. I could see my old farmer, whose landlord was probably on his knees about now, trying on his enlarged trousers and checking my stitching. The sweet dear with her prosthetic breast and knicker elastic would be in front of her mirror or perhaps asking her grandson about the marble I had pulled from her machine!
Then, of course, there was Mad Mary! I did not mention to my wife that I had been snogged by Mad Mary in a sudden fit of passion! Albeit against my will. Mary would be busily catching up on 50 years of sewing. She’d left a message on my phone saying that she had renamed her machine Merlin because now her machine was pure magic!
Tiny old Esther at Grants Hill would probably have her tin of prunes ready for the morning so she could count all her pips and decide who she would be marrying. Or, then again, she may have been peeking out of her curtains into the moonlight, wondering. Wondering where Lord Lucan’s body could be hidden.
Finally, Jeff and Brian, the Birling Gap fisherman. They would probably be sitting by their fires smoking pipes watching the crackling wood burn in the hearth. No words spoken. Sussex lads born and bred. Tomorrow, come what may, they would be down on the beach peering out to the horizon wondering if the sea would be calm enough for another trip out in their little boat.
And me! As always I would be packed up with my tools on the road to more customers and more adventures.
And so the world turns.
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NOW THIS IS A TRUE STORY THAT IS AMAZING!
Makes you wonder!
I Met a woman today that really made me wonder about
life. I was just fixing her sewing machine when she noticed that I had
an unusual name and I told her it was originally Russian. Then out came
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