The Lace Maker By Lynn Love
My benefactor was hanged at six o’clock this morning.
The landlord, Peeks, was sweating up the sheets beside me, snoring like a boar. I shoved him quiet as I listened for the sixth bell. Hailstones fell heavy as dice on the tin roof above me, God’s sign my benefactor’s deeds are at an end—he never would venture out in foul weather.
It all began one October afternoon two years ago.
I only kept a lamp burning in the back workroom then (there was no oil spare to light the shop) but with good eyes and the blinds raised there’s glimmer enough, even along this rotting ginnel. The shop bell rang. I shuffled out, hand on the pocketknife tucked in my waistband. But this was no rogue seeking easy pickings, for a chill gust carried in the smell of fresh linen, cigars and Macassar oil. A gentleman.
He spoke my name, wheeled a beaver fur hat in his hands. It’s been half a lifetime since I was Miss Rubythorn—I’ve been French Sara ever since the slum of Angel Meadow broke my fall from grace.
“A commission,” he said, dropping a sizeable leather pouch in my hand. Calfskin it was, punched, ruched, handstitched.
His scent was stronger as he leaned towards me—wood smoke, beeswax, the sticky clove underscore of Laudanum. Peeks and I had shared a bottle of Holland Gin the night before and my stomach soured at the rich stink of my visitor.
“Sir – “
“Please,” he said, holding out a hand. It was fine boned, pale like that of a stone knight on a tomb. Perfect, but for the nails which were ridged and horn-like, bitten to the quick.
I eased my hand inside the pouch and instantly withdrew it when something slippery shifted inside. A money purse hit the counter.
“Please,” he said, and in his voice there was a smile.
I emptied the pouch, its contents slithering out. The ribbon caught my eye first—good scarlet satin, a full yard of it. Nothing so rich was ever seen in my shop, or in the Meadow. It was tied around a noose of chestnut hair.
He told me what he wanted, the sum he would pay. I asked if he had no female relative to do the work, explaining that after my mother passed, I laced a watch chain of her hair myself which Father kept tucked in his waistcoat pocket in remembrance of her.
My visitor shook his head. He said this was no trifling memento, but his legacy. “Such artistry requires an expert hand,” he said.
He would visit countless times after, but never spoke again. Still, I have heard his voice often as I slept, that same hoarse croak, whispering secrets.
I stayed at the counter after he left, running my finger over the ribbon, its faultless weave. I didn’t yet have the pluck to touch the hair.
That night, Peeks was up Cheetham Hill, having wagered large on a bare-knuckle match. I was glad of the quiet, sitting on the stool in my workroom, watching the fire sparkle and die in the grate. With that purse of coins I could have bought coal enough to last out the year. Instead, I sat unseeing until the room grew cold, until damp seeped into my stockings.
In my youth I had been the finest lace maker. Folk would send across the county—across the country—for me. My work graced the table linen of Duchesses, the wedding gowns of Ladies—on one occasion, the christening of a foreign Princess. Then came Jacquard and his loom, draping every laundress and rat catcher’s wife in gaudy finery and the good money turned away from lace.
Now, my mind spun. How had my benefactor found me, down by the sluggard canal, no sign above the door and only a show of stained calico and blue bottles in the window? My lacing pillow and bobbins had lain untouched for years, with me making pennies from piece work, Peeks taking his rent money in kind. That night I shivered under my blankets, the damp my only escort.
But dawn is the exorcist of phantoms.
By nine, the coal scuttle was full and a copper pan of water and lye was bubbling. I wound the scarlet ribbon about itself, tucked it in the purse which I hid behind a loose brick at the back of the crumbling fire breast—Peek’s nose reaches into every corner and his fingers are sticky.
A week after my benefactor’s first visit, the shop bell rang again. A second skein of hair, this time gold flashed with copper and fastened with an amber ribbon. With it, a second purse of money.
In the beginning, it seemed the work would defeat me. Human hair is the finest thread and the one that mithers most. Daintier than flax, more wilful than cotton, it sprung from my grasp, every knot working loose. But of all things, I am dogged. Over the days, I learnt to follow where the threads led me, to lean and coax, to wax the kinks until straight and boil the most stubborn hanks twice.
As I worked, I imagined the owners of the hair. Some strands forked at the ends—a prig over keen on the brush, I thought. Some were greasy where soap had not troubled the scalp—a slattern with more care for the bottle than decency. Some curls fell straight after boiling, their wave put in place by vanity and a hot iron. And my nose was always busy—the scent of geranium oil or attar of roses, of stables or week-old haddock. One hank I remember was wet and smelled of the river, a head of yellow coltsfoot tangled in it. What adventures they must have, I thought, my benefactor and the ladies of his acquaintance.
When winter came, I walked to a glassworks in Ancoats to buy a magnifying flask—a blown globe set beside a candle to brighten its rays. When lit, my workroom was so bright it seemed I’d taken the sun captive. I’d bought other items with the money too—a new pair of spectacles with wire frames, a soft wool shawl in shades of heather, a quilt of pink Paisley squares.
“Who brings this new found fortune?” said Peeks the day I paid him the back rent in full. By then I’d barred that prickly hog from my bed, but even with a palm full of shillings to waste, the man griped. “Owt to do with that monstrous rope?” he nodded towards the coil of woven hair. It hung heavy by then, reaching to the floor.
I shooed him out, took a cloth of midnight blue chenille and covered the work. Best to keep it clean—I told myself—for who knew when my benefactor might have want of it.
Come spring, the neighbourhood was aflood with gossip. Lasses were missing and not just those who worked nights on Piccadilly. I paid the whisperers no mind. Whether in the grand villas of Mosley Street or the alleys of Angel Meadow, men will loose their demons and women will pay for it.
Another autumn night came around and the shop bell rang. A fresh rope of hair, a fresh purse of money. I nodded, he nodded, the bell rang behind him as he left. Stepping into the workshop, some small thing shone in the light from the magnifying lamp. Holding up the tresses—the colour of a raven’s wing this time, tied with silver—I parted the threads. With every movement my quarry slithered away. I reached into the sewing box for a set of tweezers and with them plucked the thing free. It glistened, a maggoty glob of pink streaked with red.
I stared at it a while, then tossed it in the grate, jabbing the coals until the flames rose. A spit, the smell of burnt meat and the thing was consumed. Forgotten.
The work grew to be my pride. I took care to feather the colours together, brown blending with gold, blending with copper and black, so the shifts between them were subtle, the weave so fine, each stitch could hardly be seen. Every night the bone bobbins clacked, light flickering in the beaded spangles.
And then my benefactor failed to come. I teased through the last of the hair—white blond, fine as an infant’s—my hands slowing, as if to prolong the work that had become my life.
Days after the bobbins fell silent, Peeks came into the shop, slapped a greasy copy of the Manchester Guardian on the counter. His grubby forefinger rested on the front page. Butcher of Angel Meadow taken… There was a description below of a man, his beaver fur hat... My benefactor.
“That’ll be an end to it, then,” said Peeks. He pushed past me into the back room, wriggled his fat rump into my chair, rested his boots on my grate.
I stared down at the paper, at the whorl of filth his touch had left behind.
Now, Peeks is restored to my bed and my great work is at an end. But there is one more thing to do before my story is over. A commission I make of myself, in remembrance. Two ox bones lie by the workroom grate. With my blade, I’ll whittle them until they are the length and weight of my other bobbins. I shall stoke the fire till it burns high and set a needle to the heat. On the first bobbin I shall prick my benefactor’s name, one dark hole at a time. The second shall read Sara Rubythorn 1849.
As I work, the hailstones will fall heavy as dice on the roof and all I shall smell is hair, burning.