FEBRUARY 23, 2016 By Jigsaw
A short story by Sarah Butler
The house is too quiet without her. Ines walks from the bathroom to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the living room, from the living room to the closed door of Amelia’s room. She rests her forehead against the wood, imagines the door opening and her stumbling inside, Amelia catching her, half-laughing half-angry – what are you doing, Mum? Spying?
There is fog this morning, a thick soupy white pressed against the windows. The rest of the world might have disappeared – this house, where she grew up and her mother before her, might have been set adrift – and she would not know. Ines twists the door handle until the catch gives, then lets go. She will be late for work unless she leaves now, but she cannot seem to move. Such an ordinary door – a flat piece of wood, stained dark brown, with a worn brass handle – she wants to spend the day curled up against it.
She chose the name Amelia because it sounded like a flower, but meant hard work. Work gives you strength, she has always told her daughter – strength and freedom. And so, even though she feels heavy as water, she forces herself away from the door, stops for a moment by the hall mirror to colour her lips a deep plummy red, and then steps out into the cool white of the morning. Here – Amelia, aged five, chasing a butterfly along the garden path. Here – Amelia, aged eight, kneeling beside Ines, both of them pulling out weeds from between the flowers. Here – Amelia, in her teens, stood by the gate waiting for a boy, humming with fragile excitement.
It is a seven minute walk from her house to the factory. She has made the journey every working day since she was Amelia’s age. That is her choice, Ines tells herself, as she turns the corner and starts down the hill, and she has brought up Amelia to choose her own path. It is too late now to start wishing for what her neighbour Vitoria has: sitting across the work table from her child each day, a box of leather pieces between them, brushing on the glue, lining up the edges and pressing them together, finger and thumb pinching close.
The fog wipes out the hills with their lines of spinning turbines. It wipes out the sky, and most of the small town. She can see only four or five houses ahead of her, and even they look smudged and unreal. Ines knows that it will clear, that in an hour the sky will be a swathe of unblemished blue, but then perhaps today it will not.
They are building a new factory. There will be space and light and order. But for now they are still in the old place, small and familiar, tacked onto the owners’ house. She walks through the garden – past the row of tall red flowers with their pointed leaves, past the rusting shipping container – and opens the heavy metal door.
She is not late, but everyone else is already there, aproned, chattering, the air rich with the almond scent of new leathers.
Today, they are making the English bags. Of course. Pale, smoke-grey leather. Yesterday, they made bags for Italy – red leather stamped with a crocodile pattern and polished until it shone. They were tiny, hard-edged, zipped and buckled and clasped. These today are the opposite: soft buttery leather and simple lines. Bags are like people, she used to tell Amelia: some shout and fuss and demand to be looked at, others are happy knowing that their elegance is there, without the need for showing off.
Ines ties her apron and lifts the first of the leathers onto her table, smoothing it flat with the palm of her hand. Beautiful. Barely treated. The creases at the neck are marked a darker grey, and here, a light scratch she will need to avoid. She places the cardboard pattern close to the back edge, breaks off the old blade from the top of the knife, and starts to cut. It is a man’s job, they say, to cut by hand, but she has been doing it for years and her body is tuned to each movement, the pressure needed to cut swiftly and neatly, the twist from her waist to follow the curve just so. There is a rhythm to it, which she usually falls into within minutes. Today, though, she feels out of sync.
She wishes they had not argued. She wishes she could have just hugged her daughter and told her she was proud of her, excited for her, instead of saying, you’re doing what your father did to me. The words came before she could stop them. And in truth, she meant them. To be left once, and then to be left again. It is too much.
Ines places the pattern for the back of the inside pocket over the scratch. It will not be seen, but it will be there – a small hurt. She cuts, breathing through her mouth to keep the tears away. Amelia leaving is not the same as Tomas leaving. A year in London. She will work in a cafe, improve her English, get a little homesick, decide she does want to go to university after all. She will come back. But once words have been said, they cannot be unsaid – not with all the apologies and retractions in the world.
Ines works slowly, methodically. As she cuts, she imagines climbing into one of the boxes of finished bags – each one checked and bagged and price tagged – imagines how her heart would thunder as Sofia taped the box shut, as the box was handled onto a lorry, as the lorry rattled its way out of Porto, towards England. In the end, Amelia had let her go with her to the airport, and Ines had felt the fear coursing through her as she stood in that tall glass building with the planes lined up outside, too big and too heavy to fly.
The piles of cut leather pieces grow taller and heavier until Vitoria lifts them up and takes them down the steps to where the women sit gluing at the long table or stitching on the machines by the window. Ines tries to imagine the lorry arriving in London, the tape ripped off the box and her climbing out from amongst the bags. Buckingham Palace. Horse Guards Parade. The Tower of London. Amelia showed her pictures, talked breathlessly about the places she would go, the things she would see, but all Ines can think of is her daughter walking away from her towards passport control – how tiny she looked in that huge space.
She glances towards the open window – the fog has gone, the sky a clear rich blue. She pulls her mobile from her pocket, but there is no message waiting for her. In an hour she will take off her apron and walk back up the hill for lunch. After she has eaten, she might let herself sit on Amelia’s bed for a while, just until her heart settles.