Nobody Knits These Days - by Jan Jones
"Nobody knits these days," said Aunt Matty severely.
"Everyone’s too busy," I said.
She looked at me over the top of her rimless spectacles. "In here ?" Her voice was heavy with irony.
I grinned. "You chose it."
Sunny Gables had been the fifteenth rest home we had visited in the search for the ideal establishment for Aunt Matty’s declining years. After every one, Mum had repeated that if looking after herself was getting too much, she should come and live with us instead, but Aunt Matty had not got through a fuller-than-average life by giving in and she wasn’t about to start now.
"No, Linda," she had said. "The human body may be miraculous in its prime, but not when it begins to let you down. I refuse to demean either myself or you by having you clean up after me or feed me infantile pap." Thus she had sold her house and installed herself in Sunny Gables where she could bully the staff, hold forth to the residents, play bridge to her heart’s content and be visited by her loving family every Sunday.
"Even you don’t knit, Kate," she said now.
"I do. I’m making a scarf. Stripy. Like Dr Who’s." It wasn’t quite a lie. I’d started it two years ago. Unfortunately its inauguration had coincided with my enrolment as a student nurse and all my free time had abruptly disintegrated.
"Well, where is it?" said Aunt Matty. "You could be knitting while we talk."
Easy for her to say. I couldn’t remember a time when Aunt Matty’s needles hadn’t clicked in time to her conversation. "I - er - ran out of wool," I said feebly.
She gave me a look. "Fetch the green bag from my room."
Aunt Matty’s stockpiled, bulging carriers were the despair of the staff. Ignoring the plea for ‘personal mementos in moderation’, she had relocated the hoarded scraps of a very long lifetime to Sunny Gables with her. The Occupational Therapist alone had enthused - until the penny had dropped that not only did woolly animals for the Annual Sale of Work not figure highly on Aunt Matty’s agenda, neither was she prepared to allow anyone else’s inferior knitted squares into her own Red Cross blankets.
"Take it with you," said Aunt Matty, causing a passing attendant to cross herself. "You’ll recognise the wool."
Curious, I peered into the straining bag. A ball of yellow caught at my memory. I’d had a chunky Aran windcheater in that very colour when I was six. I rummaged further. Soft purple recalled a magical birthday cardigan, cherry-red a Christmas sweater.
"You’ll catch flies," Aunt Matty observed. "Tell me about this young man of yours."
"He’s not my young man. His name’s Josh and he busks near the café."
Aunt Matty nodded. "In my day it was theatre queues. What does he do really?"
Nothing ever fazed Aunt Matty. I capitulated. "He’s at the Royal College of Music. He spent his entire student grant on a new flute, so now he practices at Tube stations or on the street and lives on what people throw him."
"What does he look like? Is he good?"
I shrugged. "His music sounds like music." As for what he looked like - "Tall. Thin. Dark, floppy hair..."
"Intense? Half-starved? Your lame ducks generally are."
I met her bright, ageless eyes and laughed. "I’d better go. I’m due at the café at four. Thanks for the wool."
"Bring the scarf with you next time," she ordered. "It won’t grow any longer sitting in your workbag!"
"I will." I kissed her dry cheek, hefted the leftover yarn and hurried out. Student nurses’ pay only went so far. I needed all the tips I could get from my shifts at the café.
Josh was in his usual pitch, playing something which sounded like a flight of birds. Vivaldi, said the notice in his flute case. The Goldfinch. He was still there when the café closed at seven. "Wool?" he queried, rescuing a ball of knobbly speckled orange.
I handed him half the not-quite-stale doughnut the manager had bestowed on me. "From Aunt Matty," I said. "I’m making a scarf full of memories for winter."
He strolled back to the nurses’ hostel alongside me. "Go on. Nobody knits these days."
"Ha! Wait and see."
Men of the opposite sex were not allowed in the hostel so naturally the corridor I shared with nine other girls was full of them. Josh propped himself against the wall and chatted to a couple while I made us cup-a-soups and toast.
"You’ll have to go once you’ve eaten," I said, kicking my door open. "I’ve got a Pathology test tomorrow."
He smiled. "I’m supposed to be orchestrating a concerto tonight, anyway." He arranged balls of wool on the bed, systematically teasing apart long rainbow snarls. "I used to have gloves this colour," he said, disentangling a moss-green hank which was all that remained of a ten-year-old cable-knit jumper.
"Don’t tell me. You couldn’t play the flute in gloves, so you sold them."
He grinned wickedly. "They were goalkeeper’s gloves," he said. "Didn’t know I used to play football, did you?"
I did try to revise Path after Josh left, but that unexpected gleam of fun in his eyes had unsettled me. The moss-green hank still lay on the bed where he’d left it.
"Right," I muttered, "I’ll fix you," and burrowed into the bottom of the wardrobe for my embryonic scarf. It was surprisingly easy to slip back into the knit-two-purl-two routine, easy and rather comforting. I propped my Path notes up and had got through both them and the moss-green before I realised it. As I joined the yellow windcheater wool, other half-remembered stitches jostled in my head. I heard Aunt Matty’s voice telling me how the fishermen’s ‘Gansies’ of the South Coast had special patterns for each wearer: how the womenfolk knitted them and their man’s design died with him. I speculated idly on what Josh’s jersey would contain. A swirling delicate spiral for his music obviously, but what else? It was rather sobering to think that even though I’d been feeding him for weeks, I’d hardly even begun to know him.
"How was your Path test?" he said on Tuesday.
"Okay." I was touched that he’d remembered. I tore the corner off today’s offering of a slab of bread pudding and gave him the rest. "I knitted while I revised. How was your orchestration?"
"Too exuberant," he said, mimicking a crusty professor. "There’s a College concert Thursday evening. Want to come? It’s free."
"Um, yes, okay," I said, feeling suddenly shy. "I’m on the ward until six. I’ll have to go home and change first."
We never got there. I was just coming down the hostel stairs and Josh was waiting at the bottom, when there was a phone call. Hollow, nightmarish words ricocheted around my head and sucked the air from my lungs.
"Josh! Aunt Matty’s had a heart attack! She’s okay, but - "
In a flash, he was in the middle of the road bellowing "TAXI!"
I dithered helplessly as a black cab swerved to a halt. "I’ll, um, let you know when..."
"Idiot," he said, pushing me inside and slamming the door on us. "Where to?"
They’d taken Aunt Matty’s spectacles off. She was pale and defiant against her pillows. "Such a fuss," she grumbled.
"My fault," muttered a hovering, choleric gentleman. "Ticklish contract. I should never have raised her to six."
"Pardon?" I said, bewildered.
"Six Clubs. Doubled and Vulnerable. Should have left it at Game."
My head snapped to the bed. "You had a heart attack because of a bridge game?"
"Made it though," said Aunt Matty complacently.
Behind me Josh gave a snort of laughter.
I suddenly remembered something. "Josh! The taxi! How did you pay the driver? You haven’t got any money!"
Josh grinned. "Gave him the concert tickets."
"But they were free," I said, appalled.
"He didn’t know that, did he?" His hair flopped endearingly over his eyes. "I’ll rustle us up a cup of tea. Hot and sweet for shock, right? Must be a kitchen here somewhere."
I watched him go, open mouthed, then sat down with a rush on Aunt Matty’s bed. "Don’t you ever do that to me again! How I’m going to tell Mum I don’t know! And who on earth is he?" I jerked my head at the choleric gentleman.
Her hand, much thinner and more birdlike than it had any right to be, covered mine. "That boy," she said, "needs a Gansy."
I gave up. "Tell me about it! It’s going to be a horribly complicated pattern."
Her eyelids drooped. "You’ll work it out," she said.
Incredibly Josh was back, steam rising from three mugs. As I met his eyes warmth took hold of me, spreading and filling every crevice, chasing away the last remnants of petrified anxiety. He smiled at me.
"Yes, I intend to," I told Aunt Matty softly.