Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Sewing Machine


The Sewing Machine is a short story that I finished writing around 18 months ago. I love the short story form and this was probably the first piece I wrote in this style that made me want to experiment with it further. The story explores themes of expectation and tradition within the family unit, with one piece of prose acting as a snapshot of a wider picture of tension.


Stones fly up and ping against the side of the car as we turn into the farm. I beep the horn a few times. Auntie Elizabeth appears at the back door of the farmhouse and smiles when she sees the Fiat, coming out to untie the rope and let the gate swing open. As soon as I’ve parked and opened the door a golden mass of hair and legs bounds out from the house and climbs over me into the passenger seat. ‘He’s not a very good guard dog is he?’ I laugh. ‘He wants to escape!’

Auntie Elizabeth shakes her head. ‘He’s too soft. Come on Dave, out.’ Dave’s ears stand up quizzically at the sound of his name and he tramples over me again. ‘How did you find the roads?’ she asks while the dog pogoes at her side.

‘Fine, they were mostly gritted. There’s a lot of stones on the path though, Minty better not have any scratches.’ I get out of the car to inspect the paintwork at either side.

‘It’s still as garishly green as ever.’

‘He heard that, don’t be mean.’

She goes inside to fetch her coat and wanders out again, over the fields. I wrestle my stuff out of the car and drag my suitcase across the gravel towards the front of the house. At the sound of a whistle I look up and see one of the sheepdogs following Auntie Elizabeth towards the cottage. There are already some lambs racing one another across molehills, bouncing about as if not sure how many legs they should be using. At the far end of the closest field, chimney smoke plumes into the air. Uncle John is with his paper by the fire, so afternoon milking must’ve been quick.

In our living room, Dad’s on the settee watching Bargain Hunt. ‘Emily you’re not having a bath before I do, I’ve been working and you’ll use all the hot water.’

‘Hello! You’re home early. You left the front door open. Stop it.’

‘It was raining so the equipment wouldn’t work. And it blew open.’

‘It doesn’t do that if you lock it.’

David Dickinson starts talking about model aircraft before I can say anything else and he’s fierce competition for Dad’s attention. I sink into the leather of the settee.

Mum gets home about an hour later and I’m in the same position, mouth gormlessly agape. Alex is with her, flicking his long dark fringe about and mimicking her as she speaks, mouthing ‘Nag nag nag’ as she yells for my dad to stop spending so long in the bath.

‘Is it too much to expect that I’ll be able to have a wee in my own house when I get back?’ Me and Alex cringe visibly at the volume and hear a sigh from upstairs, followed by a key turning in the bathroom door.

‘Happy Birthday Alex’ I whisper. ‘Sweet sixteen!’ I wave my arms in the air. He pulls a face.

‘Thanks Em. How’s Manchester?’

‘Yeah it’s alright.’ I look towards mum, who’s retreating upstairs. I lower my voice. ‘I’m really enjoying the job now actually. I get a lot of say in the pricing up and structuring of projects so I’m kept pretty busy. How’s school? Didya learn anything today?’

‘Not really. Holly took a sheep’s heart in for biology and we got to cut into it.’

‘That’s beyond disgusting. Was that her present to you? When do I get to meet her?’

‘She got me this hoodie.’ He pulls at a sleeve. ‘She’s coming tonight.’

‘Ooooooh. I’m gonna grill her.’

‘Don’t!’ he whines.

‘I’ll be nice.’ My eyes flick up to the ceiling as I try to listen to the whispers from mum upstairs.

‘Mum loves her.’

‘Who?’

‘Holly. She really likes her.’

‘Good.’


The local Indian restaurant is the only place to go for a meal in Brazonside. Mixed vegetable Kashmiri is placed in front of me and I smile at the waiter. Alex and Dad are all farm talk between themselves so I turn towards Holly. ‘Korma is always a good choice. Do you not like spicy food?’

She smiles. ‘I’m not very brave.’

‘Alex has only got something spicy to impress you, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him choose something with a chilli next to it on the menu.’ Alex scowls at me and squeezes Holly’s shoulder but continues his conversation with Dad.

‘How are your GCSEs going?’ I ask.

‘They’re okay. We’ve only done English so far and that went alright I think.’

‘Is there a subject you like best?’

‘Mmm I like textiles. We’ve been doing dressmaking and I love it, I’m making a dress for my coursework that I might wear for prom after if it goes well.’

‘Wow that’s amazing, I could never make a proper dress. I was rubbish at textiles.’

‘I’d like to do it at A Level too if I stay for sixth form. Sometimes I go in after school to use the machines and make other stuff.’

‘You definitely should, sixth form’s great. How good is it that she can make her own clothes, mum?’

Mum looks up from her dish and beams at Holly. ‘She’s very talented. It’s a wonderful hobby.’

That word. Hobby. ‘She could do it as a job if she wanted to. You could do a textiles course at uni Holly. Have you thought about uni or are you not bothered?’

‘Maybe, umm I’m not sure yet but it could be –

‘She loves Brazonside, she wants to stay on her family’s farm.’

I frown at mum. ‘Let the girl make her own decision.’

‘Of course.’ She beams at Holly again, showing a lot of teeth. ‘Holly’s a lot more family-oriented than you ever were that’s all, she’d find it hard to just up sticks. And you’d make a great farmer’s wife Holly.’ She grins.

‘I never really knew what I wanted to do either, so don’t worry about it now. Engineering just opened up all these possibilities for me which was great. It all worked out in the end.’ Holly smiles. ‘Sometimes it’s just nice to talk about something other than sheep’, I whisper, nodding towards the men. She smiles softly in Alex’s direction but rolls her eyes in agreement.

I knew that mum was listening to us, but she said nothing. Every time I snuck a glance in her direction her eyes were fixed pointedly on her curry and her lips curved downwards. Only when I finish and I’ve got a mouth full of naan bread do her eyes roll to her left, just for a moment, to look at me. Then, whatever spiritual truths were revealed to her in the orange of her Rogan Josh ignite her.

‘Emily can you eat properly please, you’re twenty three for god’s sake.’

I chew slowly, then swallow. ‘How am I not eating properly?’

‘You’re practically inhaling your food and it’s supposed to be a pleasant meal for your brother’s birthday.’

‘Oh sorry. Alex, is my inhaling bothering you?’ Alex tries to hide a grin but I know it’s there beneath his napkin before he wipes it from his face.

‘Inhale away.’

‘Alex can you not get involved? Steve, tell them.’ Dad winces at his name.

‘Tell them what?’

‘Tell them to stop being so immature. And to have manners when we’re out.’

‘Stop being so immature you two’ he repeats mechanically. Mum heaves an almighty sigh, but flashes apologetic eyes towards Holly. She is the wolf and we are the three little pigs, but she’s scared to make a real scene in front of her new favourite.

‘I don’t know why I bother. You’re just as bad Steve, throwing food down your face like someone’s gonna steal it before you can finish.’

Dad darts his eyes left and right and envelops a poppadom in his arms. ‘They might’ he whispers. Alex snorts loudly. Bits of poppadom start collapsing into dad’s lap and he laughs it off unashamedly. Mum’s face is all wide blood vessels now as her anger rises to its surface.

‘Mum, chill out.’

‘Don’t tell me to chill out. You’re embarrassing to go anywhere with.’

The three of us in the firing line exchange glances. My knuckles clench under the table but above it I take a deep breath and close my eyes for two mississippis. We all stay quiet but she just can’t, she needs to end it with a sting. Of course, I’m the target.

‘Emily you’re so selfish. I don’t know why you came, you just stir things up and start arguments.’ She violently tugs at the napkin beneath her plate but brings her Rogan Josh down with it. The Balti dish swerves right, splashing curry all over dad before clattering to the hardwood floor. ‘I came for Alex’s birthday.’ The rest is all in my sigh.

The argument ends there in a pregnant silence, broken only when dad picks a piece of chicken from his lap and tries to joke about having curry to go with his sticky fragments of bread. There are no more raised voices for the rest of the night, but the mirage of affinity we’d relied upon is as shattered as dad’s peace-keeping poppadom.


The next morning I wake to the smell of burning sausages and laugh to myself. Mum’s left them cooking and gone off somewhere again – same story every Saturday. I run downstairs to rescue them and skid in my slipper socks onto the kitchen tiles, but Alex has already taken them from the grill and is stood on one of the hard kitchen chairs trying to reach the smoke detector. I scrape the sleep from the corner of my eye and the dream dies. I’ve not been the sausage saviour for five years now. Alex sees me and pinches his nose, screwing up his face.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’

‘Uncle John called Dad at two in the morning. It was bad with the lambs last night, there was a breech birth he couldn’t get out in time. The poor thing drowned. We’ve got another two that have been rejected, they need feeding but mum’s out with the cows and doesn’t have time.’ I nod at him. ‘What time are you leaving Em?’

‘I’m not. Where are the pet lambs, in the porch?’

‘Yeah, but –'

‘It’s fine. Just sort the sausages.’

I pull some odd kitchen wellies onto my bare feet and go into the back porch. Two quivering baby lambs are nestled into each other in one corner. I turn out the shelves of the little bureau against the wall, then grab the first and sit cross legged on the floor with it, bottle in hand. I tut and coo until it begins to feed, then do the same for the other. Mum comes through the back door as I’m cradling the second one.

‘Oh. Emily. They need colostrum every two hours.’ She scrapes the loose bits of grey hair out of her face with one hand.

‘I know. I’ve got them. Grace and Albie will be fine.’

She tuts at me and laughs. ‘You always loved naming them.’ As she leaves, she thanks me. I only sigh.


Six days later, I’m still at the farm. I never imagined that I’d spend my time off here, getting up at five to help dad and nursing two lambs back to health. Grace and Albie are out of the woods now but I’ve got used to playing in the kitchen with them and I sort of like that they’re my responsibility. Mum brings me cups of tea throughout the day and her face has gone all soft like it used to be before I aged it. I worry that she thinks I’ll be here forever.

In the afternoon dad tuts and says my skin is like frozen milk, pushing me towards the house. My breath circles in front of me on the fields as I breathe out frost and breathe it back in again. Minty is sitting all frozen up by the back and my heart aches. His eyes flash a greeting when I point my keys at him, his grinning bumper an invitation. Once my hands grip the wheel I can’t help myself and I’m pulling out of the drive before anyone sees, tyres and gravel sounding a crunch of freedom. Out of the gate and onward.

There’s nowhere to really go, but a whirring idea sticks itself in the space between my ears and throws left and rights at me until I stop. Charity shops swallow up the street where I park, at least a dozen in rows dispersed by tiny cafes and artisan gift stores. I soon discover that there are more around the corner, the whole town a homage to chunky cardigans and board games with missing pieces. These aren’t what I’m looking for, but the old oversized wellies I’ve got on keep slapping onto the pavement of their own accord and I keep looking. In what is maybe the ninth store I spot it: a stocky brown box with a handle. It’s lifted to reveal the smooth white curves of a sewing machine.

I wrap the brown box in a blanket and put it on Alex’s desk. I quickly scrawl a note and stuff it into a yellow envelope, setting it on top. ‘Will you give this to Holly?’

‘It’s huge, what is it?’

‘Just give it to her for me, and the envelope. Please?’

‘Fine.’

I rest my arms on his shoulders. ‘I’m sorry to have left you here by yourself.’

He shakes his head. ‘It’s alright. It’s not so bad all the time.’

My smile is sympathetic. ‘Well if you ever want to visit.’

In the living room, Dad’s on the settee watching Bargain Hunt, the dog by his side. ‘You okay Em?’

‘Yeah. I’m gonna head off now.’

He nods and presses pause on the remote. ‘Watch the roads. When will we see you?’

Looking through into the kitchen, my gaze lingers on the heavy oak dining table with its uncovered butter dish and teacosied pot. It’s been six days since burning sausage but I can still smell them. ‘I’m not sure.’

He strokes Dave’s ears and smiles at me. ‘Okay.’ David Dickinson starts up again.

I’m about to shut the back door when he says ‘Be kind to your mum, but don’t listen to her.’

I nod. ‘Bye.’

I find mum with Grace and Albie. ‘Did you want to take over? You’ve done a great job with them, you’re a natural.’

‘No you carry on, they like you.’ I pause. ‘I’m going now mum’. She looks up.

‘Right. Of course.’ I kneel to hug her and for one mississippi she returns the embrace. ‘Be careful on the ice.’ Then she quickly turns back to the lambs and falls into silence.

As I’m de-icing the car she appears at the gate and opens it for me.
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