Picture a woman sat on a cold stone ledge, abutted by horsehair upholstered bolsters at either side of her physique. Her russet-red curls cascade over her clavicle, inching down her bodice further as she cranes her head over a wooden frame. She is counting, the flickering fire to her left is spitting out embers; it keeps interrupting her concentration. She finally punctures the needle through the taut canvassing and pulls a claret red thread through to its end, with a satisfying tug.
I walk in. My footsteps echo with every strike on the flagstone floor. The wind howls shrill outside the shuttered windows, and a horse’s hooves clatter on the cobbles somewhere. I sit down opposite her, on a perch identical to her own. Without raising her head, she lifts her gaze and her eyes glide up to meet mine.
She looks back down at her sampler, unphased. I open my bag and retrieve my hoop, skeins, and needle. I hold the needle up to the fire, the flames dance through the tiny eye and I thread it on the first try. I look to her for a good-tempered congratulation, from one embroideress to another, but she’s not looking at me. She continues to pour over the rosewood frame.
“That’s a bit of a fire hazard there, isn’t it?”
She casts a playful scowl in my general direction. I continue with my work. Strewn about my ledge are some of my completed pieces – for my own reference – and I sense she may be looking at them. Surprisingly, she is: and with quiet admiration. She seems pleased that my samplers deviate little from the style of her own. The creatures, the flowers, the personal dedications with names and dates and years, all look like hers.
She stands and brushes her floor-length skirt and apron down, ridding herself of thread ends, which fall silently to the floor to join the tiny mortar rubble, shed from the oft-used alcove in which we are sat. She steps closer to me and sinks down gracefully beside my seat – it is as if her legs have sunken into the floor beneath her, like a spectre, or a swan – then takes one of the pieces in her delicate, bejewelled fingers, and smiles.
“So you like Shakespeare then?”
She nods keenly, then returns to her seat. I pull out my phone, dragging the brightness all the way up to see clearly in the murky light. I check Pinterest to ensure my design matches the reference image, before I make the final stitch. She lifts her gaze again, and she sees my face is lit with white light, as opposed to the amber glow of the dying fire. She recoils. Satisfied, I puncture my needle through the taught canvassing and pull a claret red thread through to its end, with a satisfying tug.
I notice she is watching me, an aggrieved look etching across her face. I hold the finished piece up to her, while looking at it from the side, admiring my creation. An airborne cherub, pulled by a winged crown, is abutted by the name of my favourite Queen song above and below.
She reads the words, and her frame clatters into the hearth, engulfed by creeping flames, as she flees the room.
“What?” I call after her, “Don’t you like Queen?”
I am burnt at the stake the following noon.
When I have ample time and gifts due to be given, I turn to cross stitch embroidery. In lockdown I had both of these, plus a burning desire to pass time as quickly as possible, and a persistent need to calm my general nerves. I decided to create a piece for Storehouse featuring the embroidery I had completed, not only to provide some interesting visuals (with the permission of the recipients), but also to explore the idea of domesticity over time. The practice of embroidery has kept many a housebound and confined person occupied over the centuries; historically without the internet, healthcare, leisure and recreational pursuits that don’t fall into the category of ‘blood sports’, and other things we take for granted- that are accessible to us both in and out of lockdown. I wanted to show very overtly the similarities and differences between times gone by and our own, using the specific angle of one creative discipline as a connective point.
Instead of using my normal pseudo-academic style of writing, I wanted to indulge my ability to write in a deeply descriptive and immersive storytelling fashion, in a genre (some kind of perverse fantasy-comedy hybrid) that I occasionally delve into, but remains firmly in the bottom drawer, never destined to see the light of day. Togetherness in spite of the boundary of time is something easily conveyed when not writing literally.
The scene, pathetic fallacy, and overarching mood of the piece is loosely inspired by the poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, first published in August 1906.
I want this to leave you with more questions than answers.
Words: Alice Laycock, Storehouse Content Team, @laycockinteriors