Not Bob’s scarf. Image: Getty
Not Bob’s scarf. Image: Getty

BooksMarch 8, 2020

Little things lost

Not Bob’s scarf. Image: Getty
Not Bob’s scarf. Image: Getty

A new essay by Linda Burgess, author of the collection Somebody’s Wife and a stack of other sublime writing which you can read here.

The handbag

My mother often said that when Labour was in power there was never anything in the shops.

Which goes part way to explaining why, whatever your Dad did for a living, you were lucky, if by age five, you had a hand-me-down chain bike. You certainly didn’t have enough Thomas the Tank Engines to get NZ Rail back on its wheels, enough Sylvanian families to populate a small town.

It was lime green, box shaped, and it had a shoulder strap. Grandma had sent it to me for my birthday. I was old enough at four to have my own child-sized handbag, even if all I had to put into it was a handkerchief with a picture of Disney’s Snow White on it. The First National Government had replaced the First Labour Government but the trickledown effect of shops bursting with covetable merchandise was yet to happen.

I knew it was perfect. There was something about the way the plastic patent leather had a spongy feeling when you pressed it. When you touched it your fingers lingered, as if the slightly sticky surface didn’t want to let you go. It had a clip at the top, like a little metal 6 and a little metal 9, that you pushed together. Click.

I took it to kindergarten.

A boy took it from me. We were by the sandpit. The kindergarten was next to a paddock and with the ease of a natural bowler he took my bag and hurled it high. It soared, a perfect parabola. It hung briefly in the air. It landed. The long grass in the paddock swallowed it whole.

In her last couple of years, when she often forgot that her own mother had long since died, Mum liked to talk about small miscellaneous things, like the lolly bag that she wore on a cord round her waist when small. We know this to be a true memory because there is a photo of her, her blond hair tied back with a ribbon, her faded cotton frock, her Danish face peering apprehensively at the photographer. We had a phrase in our family, one that came from forgotten ancestors, that we used to describe that particular look: “a worrit espression”. “That,” she said, pointing to a small blur hanging more or less at hemline, “is my lolly bag.” So her brother couldn’t steal her lollies, she said, she sometimes tucked the lolly bag into her knickers.

She showed me the rug that I’d bought for her because sometimes her room in the retirement village got quite cold. As her memory downsized, she’d gone from villa, to apartment, to room. She needed the rug to put over her knees. It was light and soft, patterned with lovely colourful squares. I asked her what colour she liked best and she paused at the yellow and the pink and the lime green and chose the blue. With her blue eyes, Dad had always liked her to wear blue. She told me her mother had bought her the rug.

I asked her if she remembered the handbag, the one that her mother had bought me. It was green like that, I said, pointing to the green square on the blanket. Yes, she said. Yes!

What happened to that bag? she said. Didn’t you lose it?

I said yes, I had. That the boy at kindergarten had thrown it into the paddock next door.

She said, Was I sure? Wouldn’t I have told the teacher? Told them? Mum and Dad? Wouldn’t they have gone to look for it if he’d done that?

She said, she and Dad always wondered what had happened to that bag. She said, she’d always assumed I’d just lost it. Left it somewhere.

If it ever was there, in that paddock, it’s probably still there. My research informs me PVC doesn’t decompose. Or it could still be in the dress-up cupboard at the kindy, provenance unknown. Boy who threw it, innocent. Boy, who threw it, just a character in my story, made up to explain a loss.

The bracelet

Is that mother’s bracelet? asks Robert’s mother and I clamp my hand over it. Yes, I lie. She says, Have you had it shortened? and I say, miserably, because I hate lying, but this time it seems the lesser evil, Yes, I have. For a moment we say nothing, and then move on to another subject.

It is not my mother-in-law’s mother’s bracelet. It looks very like it; as close as possible. Both Edwardian rose gold gate bracelets, which are like little gold fences, linked. Robert’s grandmother’s bracelet had four rungs in each little fence; the new one has five. They both have a padlock in the shape of a heart, which you unlock to open it, slide the bracelet on, then click it closed. They’re a bit smaller than an old 5 cent piece, and on both of them is engraved, Flo 1915. Fortunately, for insurance purposes I have a photo of the original which shows the heart and its engraving clearly enough to be copied. To show antique dealers as I search for a replacement.

Robert’s mother often wondered how her father, who worked as a tailor, could have afforded that piece of jewellery, which he bought his fiancée as an engagement present. One day, perhaps 70 years after it had been made, Robert’s parents gave it to me as a birthday present. This was typical of Robert’s mother, who throughout her 94 years chose gifts for children, daughters-in-law, then grandchildren and great-grandchildren from her own carefully looked after treasures.

I had never had a gift that I loved so much. I wore it daily. It was inclined to fragility; that heart could spring open and the fine chain linking it was at risk of breaking. Once I was driving to a friend’s for lunch. I stopped to get petrol and as I was about to drive away, I looked at my right wrist and the bracelet was gone. I looked on the floor, no sign. I ran from the car, inside to where I’d paid. Nothing. I retraced my steps, I looked under the car. Nothing. I slid my hand under the seat, and there it was, in that awkward little space between the seat and the door. The heart had opened, and the little chain was broken.

I took it to a jeweller to mend. They admired it, and I said it was very precious to me, that it had belonged to my mother-in-law’s mother. They said, come back later in the week.

It was in the news that the restaurant directly above the jeweller, one of our favourites, had flooded. When I went back to the jeweller’s shop the next day, they were working in the half-light; the power was still off. They said that my bracelet had needed another small problem fixed, and they’d put it on the table next to the safe to remind them to ring me the next morning to see if I wanted to go ahead with the extra mend.

I said … And? And?

They said, well, there’s a bit of a problem, but they were sure we could work something out. In all the upheaval, they said, when the fire brigade had come to drain the water … They held up a damp envelope with my name on it. It was empty. Well, they said. At that stage … your bracelet, they said, was lost.

Lost? I said. Lost? And I said, as if it made any difference, But I love that bracelet.

I went out to DSIR where Robert worked and I went into his office and said, they’ve lost my bracelet. Your mother’s bracelet. He got in the car with me and we went back into town and he insisted on having a really good look. We had a torch and we crawled around the floor.

By now they were getting sulky. They stood at the counter with their arms folded, watching us. They said, We can make you another just like it.

No you can’t, I said.

They said not to blame them, it was only an accident.

It was too hard to tell Robert’s mother what had happened. I began the search for a replacement. It was before the internet, and I phoned antique dealers in Auckland. One said he had something very similar, if I paid him he would send it and I could return it if it wasn’t right. It was almost right. It was heavier. It had never been on Robert’s grandmother’s wrist. It seemed my only option. The heart-shaped lock was much smaller.  I got a new heart for it, and had it engraved: Flo 1915.

A short while later, Robert’s mother was burgled and thieves who cared nothing for sentimental attachment took the rest of her jewellery. She saw my friend Lynne in the supermarket, and she said all she could think of was how grateful she was that she’d given me her mother’s bracelet. Oh God, Lynne, who knew, said to me later. How awful.

I hardly wore that replacement bracelet; it never felt the same, and when we were burgled, years later, and it went, I replaced it with something modern.

The family gathered around her bed. She was dying. We all spent time with her alone, and as I sat holding her hand, I wanted to tell her what she knew already. But it was too late. Is that mother’s bracelet? If it had been, ritual being what it is, when she asked me I would have slipped it off. I would have felt its beautiful silken lightness in my hand. And I would have handed it to her so she could feel its beautiful silken lightness too.

And the scarf

“That scarf,” I say. “Remember that scarf?” I’m getting a cold, my ears itch, my eyes are leaking unattractively.

“That scarf,” I say again. “That scarf.”

“The one that … ?” he says tentatively.

“The one that I knitted you,” I say.

“The scarf that you knitted me,” he says, as if repeating makes it real.

He had had a beard then, as he has again now, but now it’s a majestic white, Darwinian white. Then, his beard was a mixture of warm, earthy colours.

I had spent hours in the wool shop, finding those colours. He was in Invercargill; I was in Christchurch. I was matching them from memory.

“It was stripes,” I say, “but long stripes. A university scarf. Lengthways stripes.”

I had no idea how to make it. Not like the horizontally striped scarves made from the cheapest available yarn, that learner knitters have a go at before abandoning them. If you sewed all unfinished knitted scarves together, how many times would they loop around the world?

The best way, it seemed, was to knit each stripe in a long liquorice strap-style way, till I ran out of wool. I worked out how wide each stripe needed to be for the scarf to be both long enough and wide enough, and how much wool I would need to keep to sew it to the next bit, then I cast on say, 10 or so stitches and off I went. Fighting tedium, I knitted and knitted, seven endless stripes, optimistically assuming that the finished stripes joined together would be long enough and wide enough to make a scarf to keep him warm in a southern winter. That I’d got my maths right.

A left-hander taught to knit by a right-handed friend, I’m an inelegant knitter, but I sat on the sofa in my flat in Christchurch and knitted as if the New Zealand sheep industry depended on me. Then I got the seven stripes and pinned them together. I threaded my darning needle, and I had left enough wool to sew it all up.

The dark brown was next to the gingery colour and then there was a tweedy natural wool. There was a lighter brown and a mustard colour and a darkish cream. And a rusty colour. I laid it on my bed and fiddled around, mingling the colours until I got the perfect order.

“Do you remember what happened to that scarf?” I say.

He says, “Sort of.”

“Wasn’t it after a game of rugby?” I say. “You lent it to someone,” I say. “Didn’t you.”

He says, “Probably.”

“Who?” I say, and he sort of shrugs. “Who?”

“You just haven’t a clue, have you?” I ask, and he agrees he hasn’t.

I prompt his memory. “It was someone in your team,” I say. “He borrowed it. Remember?”

“You’d only had it a few weeks,” I say. “It matched your beard,” I say.

I ask him if he remembers what happens after that. He says, “Sort of.”

“You told me,” I say, “At the time, you told me that your teammate had gone around to a girl’s flat after the game, and he left it there. And that he’d tied it to the end of her bed.” I say, “He told you she wasn’t his girlfriend. She was a one-night stand.”

He says he’ll fill the car up. He has his door open, one leg out, and I say I can’t believe he didn’t go around to that guy’s flat and get him by the throat and say he wouldn’t leave till that guy got his scarf. I say I can’t believe he didn’t do that.

“What was his name?” I say as I get out to go and pay for the petrol.

“Oh for God’s sake,’ he says. “That was 50 years ago.”

Keep going!