Chapter 9: The steepest climb
Two days before the deadline Panya came into the consulting room. The central table was scattered with drawings, fabrics, and the accoutrements of tailoring. Anjali had set three roughly cut garments on the mannequins at the end of the table, trusting that inspiration would come from their unrefined forms.
Panya stood looking across the room.
‘You only have two more days,’ Panya said, still holding the edge of the ajar door, ‘and the clients will need to approve the designs. We are perhaps a little behind where we should be.’
‘It was easier when I was making more guesses,’ replied Anjali. ‘Now that I feel that I know what I am looking for….it is proving to be a harder task. Both the Factory Manager and the Financial Manager need to carry the look of certainty. But I do not know this Financial Manager. I do not know how the garments need to reshape his approach. I am designing without a clear objective.’
Now discussing her struggle with Panya, Anjali was taken aback by the sense of relief she felt.
‘I know that the garment and its wearer must complement each other. It is a question of neither the clothing nor the person being stretched beyond the capability of the material from which they are made. I know my garments. I know, given the right formation, what conviction they could carry to the assembly.’
Anjali sat down heavily and began flicking through a file of sketches.
‘I do not know this Financial Manager well enough,’ she said, opening the file at a page that was heavy with alterations in blue pencil. ‘I do not know what this man brings to the garment. But I do know that any garment that is made to carry too much of the weight, that is pressed too hard, will let its indifference be known.’
The frustration from the last days and this, the worst day, was sewn across Anjali’s eyes.
‘If that should happen the spell will break and the pitch will be lost. My vision has clouded. I cannot see my way through this.’
Panya walked over to the mannequins and cast her eyes over the three garments.
‘I wanted to capture that warm feeling of an evening amongst one’s friends, Panya,’ said Anjali, feeling the need to justify her work. ‘I want to capture the feeling of that stage when ideas are contemplated rather than judged.’
Panya stood for a moment, like a conductor expertly pausing and feeling for that moment when the first note should sound.
‘You are very close to this problem,’ she said in time. ‘I do not have your refinement, but I do have the essential drive to get the alterations done. Tell me clearly what it is that you are wanting; and then once I know what it is, let me take it through to the end.’
Anjali was still studying the scribbled page of the file. Panya reached across and quietly took the file from Anjali.
‘You only have two more days and you will need time to do the final alterations. Now is the time that we need to do, and not to design. Let the influence that you seek from these garments stay where it is. It is enough, Anjali. Trust me, it is enough.’
In the last two days there was an easy collaboration between the two women. They made smart cut jackets, and they blended trousers. They accessorised to hint at authority, capability and success. Rather than a sweeping statement of fashion, this was the elegant assertion of influence. Their combined skill in alteration was the deciding factor. They inched, and then they ran, towards their persuasive designs.
Chapter 10: Buffers
Black shapes in the drizzle were crisscrossing the end of Arrow Street. The town centre market was drawing to an end, and the clatter from the dismantling of stores and the loading of cases of stock reached the window behind which Anjali was working.
There were now three dress-suits draped over mannequins at one end of the consulting room.
Anjali was working alone completing the small details, the tiny stitches that one tends to address when nervous about the coming day. There was comfort to be found in the soothing movement of a bright needle as it fastened down the last ends.
She was abruptly pulled from a tangle of meditation and fatigue by the sound of the back door opening. Panya came into the consulting room, dripping from the drizzle that was caught in the evening air.
‘I decided I had better come back to the shop rather than telephoning,’ said Panya. ‘We have been so busy that I never had the chance to look in detail at the documents the Factory Manager is presenting tomorrow.’
She placed her grey coat on a hook by the door. The movement of the material caused more water to fall to the thin carpet. Panya returned to the job in hand.
‘I had pulled together a pan of stew. It was something I could do quickly and then leave it to finish. Then I sat down at the table and flicked through the presentation.’
She pulled a copy of the presentation from out of the plastic bag that she had used to protect it from the drizzle. She opened the document at a page she had marked with a piece of yellow material; material that she had cut for the purpose.
‘This presentation shuts the weaving mill,’ she said.
‘Yes, I know,’ replied Anjali after a pause. ‘It is the detail.’
‘This presentation shuts the weaving mill,’ repeated Panya.
‘We cannot be a part of this, Anjali.’
This was the most resolute that Anjali had seen Panya. She had felt that this moment was coming. It is that wave that eventually overtakes you, soaking your feet on a shingle beach. It was always coming.
‘I am following a thread of silk,’ Anjali said slowly. ‘And I know it can guide me to all those places that I have wanted to reach since I first rubbed my fingers through folded fabric in my uncle’s workshop, and felt everything that it was capable of. It has always haunted me, picturing that this silk thread would fray or perish before I reached the end of it.’
Panya was still looking down at the presentation. She had that control that you expect to find only in a mantelpiece clock. She would strike, but only when the hour had perfectly come.
Anjali took this as a sign that Panya was prepared to reach a compromise, and pushed her case further.
‘I have taken a fabric and made it into far more than a bundle of material. I have made a design that not only impresses, but it does so with pinpoint accuracy to a targeted end. This is the outcome that I have worked hard for. I cannot abandon this now.’
‘The design of the clothing is good, Anjali,’ said Panya after a precise pause. ‘But the designs we have created strengthen the delivery of the message. There is still the message. We have many customers for repairs and alterations who work at the Wetledale Weaving Mill. What will they think when they find that we were involved in this?’
Anjali took a pin from the cushion on her arm and pushed it through the cuff of one of the jackets.
‘The Factory Manager is just making changes,’ she said. ‘It is change that generates wealth. Fresh and effective design is expensive. If we are ever to be more than just a shop that alters and repairs, we need to work for those in the town that force the change and create the wealth. This week, Panya, we have at last started to change Threads. This week we have started to see what the full value of our work can be.’
Like the snip of a pair of scissors through lace Anjali then snapped a last remark into place.
‘I know about the changes that might take place at the mill. It is of concern to me. But we cannot work at the cutting edge, Panya, without cutting.’
‘You have hold of the wolf by the cloth of its ears,’ replied Panya quickly. ‘It will bite us and it will bite hard. This is a small town where reputations are quickly formed and quickly destroyed. The town is like an echo chamber, where any rumour echoes amongst the buildings and becomes distorted. Every report, every opinion, every comment will always sound far worse in echo than it ever did in action.’
‘We are a tailor,’ countered Anjali. ‘A tailor lives from stitch to stitch. Design, form, texture, colour, they accompany a person through life, they do not lead them. We create a garment. That is our only action. That is all we are responsible for.’
Panya let her voice rise until it was enough.
‘We are a paid service,’ she said, ‘Without that service, it is very possible that this Factory Manager’s plan will not be adopted. We have many customers for repairs and alterations who work at that mill. I ask you again, what will they think if they find out that we were involved with this?’
Anjali let Panya’s words hang in the air. There are certain fabrics that will run together and certain that will clash. The trouble for a tailor is that you cannot fully know how different fabrics will marry together until you have seen them at their full stretch.
Panya paused and the silence wrapped around them. Then, as pointedly as a pin, she said, ‘A badly-dressed thug is a thug, Anjali. But a well-dressed thug is a name, is a presence, is a person of note. We make that difference – we make the alteration – and we cannot be anything but responsible for the alteration that we choose to tailor.
We will finish what we have started and then we will deliver the dress-suits to the Factory Manager, and we will tell him we have gone as far as we can. He can make his presentation, and we will return to our business. We repair and we make alterations. In this damp valley that is a service of real value.’
Panya turned and left. Anjali returned to the steady movement of her needle through the cloth: but from that moment the cut of the scissors and the snap of the cotton was calculated, definitive and final.
Chapter 11: Decisions
The gravity of time had pulled Anjali forwards to a setting and an event that she was convinced she could never have avoided. The brisk flow of time through the valley had deposited her in the far corner of a carpark, situated to the rear of the Riverside Hotel. Time, of course, also often flows in a contrary manner. There was still a good half hour before the time that Eileen had advised her to arrive at the Riverside Hotel. She had half an hour of thinking to do, and Anjali could not avoid her thoughts.
‘Is it really too late to decide whether we throw ourselves into the flow of events or step away from them?’
This thought was quickly followed by another.
‘Everyone sees the world in their own way. I see my world through the eye of a needle. It is a view that is roundly defined and fixed in steel.’
It was gradually growing cold in the car. Anjali’s thoughts were always hardened by the cold.
‘The end has come for Panya and I. We are two bodies that passed through each other’s gravity. There were only ever two possible outcomes. Either one collides violently into the grip of the other, or each of us gains momentum from the encounter and we are thrown apart onto our separate trajectories.’
A mallard duck landed on the river just beyond the carpark. It scrambled towards a safe boulder at the edge of the river, the fast-flowing water dragging at its body the whole time.
‘Panya is wrong to say that a tailor is responsible for their creation. All a tailor – all that Threads – does is carry the message and strengthen its delivery. We are not the designers of the message. We do not embroider the truth. We do not shape influence. We just improve the power of the signal. It is not Threads that decides what truths people choose to select and what conclusions they agree to gather together.
Panya’s choice is to hold on to the same old boulder as the river rushes past her. If all Panya does, if all Threads does, is alter and repair old garments, maintaining the struggle against damp and mischievous time, we will never escape this valley.’
Anjali shivered as she sensed a cold wind of injustice and loss that had entered the car. Her thoughts continued, but now they had broken out into spoken words.
‘I need to design,’ she said, ‘in the same way that the river needs to flow. I cannot exist without design. Design is the overcoat I pull on against the winter. It warms, comforts and protects me against a climate of despair. Design is the antidote to the grey and the damp. Design is the sun rising in summer and centring itself in a deep sky. Form, cut, texture and colour are vital to life. They are as vital as the elementary components of water or the crystalline structure of iron.’
Anjali looked down at the clock on the dashboard. It was counting down the old time. The new time would begin very soon. She needed reassurance and her thoughts granted that wish.
‘My work is as subtle as the light that sweeps across the depths of the river,’ she thought. ‘My work is not the dress of Queens and Princes, coercing the audience into acknowledging their wealth and power by merely strapping wealth and power to cloth. My work is the precise art of influence; designed to grasp hold of the visual prejudices of the viewer. I am in truth just a tailor who knows how to flatter prejudices.’
The mallard duck gave up its precarious perch and flew off into the grey sky.
‘The river is the greatest designer, mixing light and material, texture and colour. The river dares to leave the permanence of the hills and take its chances in the mercurial sea. The river has courage that the hills, with their fixed and sound foundations, will never hope to understand.’
The time had come. Anjali took her briefcase from the rear of the car and headed towards the hotel door. Now her thoughts began to play out like the beat of a drum.
‘Panya is the seamstress of this destruction. The seams of our partnership are ripping apart. She has snapped the thread. She has secured the end.’
Chapter 12: A stitch in time
‘The meeting is in the hotel’s boardroom and we are waiting in the lounge just beyond the lobby,’ Eileen said to Anjali, who was standing at the entrance, the hotel’s revolving door still turning slowly behind her. ‘I have set everything up as you asked, but you will want to look it over I have no doubt. The embroidered design on the sleeve of the jackets is reflected across the presentation, and the colours are graded as you wanted.’
Eileen led Anjali through to the hotel’s lounge.
‘They are running late as they always are. We have to wait; and everyone tends to stare down at the coffee table. This is standard procedure from the meetings I have supported so far.’
The Factory Manager and his Finance Manager – whom Anjali knew only by sight – were sitting down, leaning over a table between their low chairs and studying figures from the pages of a cardboard file with an ivy-green cover. They rose as Anjali approached. The coordinated cut and pattern, and the crisp colours of their jackets and shirts, everything started talking to Anjali before the two men ever did.
‘This looks right,’ she thought. ‘This is clothing designed with a fashioned edge.’
The Factory Manager returned the ivy-green file to his Finance Manager as Anjali sat down alongside him. The short moment of silence that followed allowed the echoing concerns from the previous evening with Panya to begin pressing down on Anjali.
‘What happens if this plan is accepted?’ she asked.
‘What will happen next if this proposal is accepted?’
‘You will be a part of it, you have my assurance on that. Focus on making sure that we carry the sense of assurance with us today. We can talk about what comes next when we know what next is.’
He paused for a moment and then added, ‘We cannot force the Board of Directors to accept a change to their plans just by repeating promising figures. We need to understand what they need to believe, and then give them reason to find the answers to their needs in our proposals. This is far better achieved by the clues they stumble across for themselves than the facts that we underline.’
He waved his hand indicating the vases of flowers, the polished woodwork, the crystal lights of the hotel.
‘Look at this hotel lobby. The quality of service which is yet to come is impossible to know; so the hotel lobby is designed to give you subtle clues that you choose to accept. If the Board stumbles across the look and feel that we have so carefully sewn into the appearance, believing it to be their own discovery, then we will win the day. The Board will believe what they stumble across, and ignore what they are presented with. That is human nature.’
‘Good,’ thought Anjali, ‘he has understood at last.’
Perhaps picking up something from Anjali, or perhaps it was just the run of the cotton, but he continued with, ‘It is their human nature that will be cut through by your designs. And believe me, Anjali, we are grateful for that.’
There was another pause whilst they both studied the coffee table.
Anjali waited, hoping that he would answer the next question that was pressing on her thoughts. The wait went on.
‘Is this proposal the best thing to do for the employees, for the town?’ she asked eventually.
‘I don’t know if this is the best thing to do. I know that this is what we can do. I know this is all that they will accept.’
‘It is true that many people have worked in the Wetledale valley’s weaving industry for generations. But it is also true that it is not our fault when things come to an end. If the proposal is accepted, well, we have some significant alterations to make.’
A grey cloud of concern crossed his face.
‘Next year will not be an easy time. Making changes in such an established business never is. Things will be unstable for a period. After that, you will help us design the look of the future.’
He took a notebook and pen from his pocket and began making notes. There was another job to be done. There was another day to get through. He wanted to get on with it; but all he could do for now was make another note.
‘Once we are in the new offices,’ he spoke as he was still scribbling in his notebook, ‘we will have the time to give colour to everything and the freedom to worry about the detail.’
Chapter 13: Coming apart
Panya was still in the shop when Anjali arrived back that evening. She had set out on the table the tools that she would need for the work that was required. This was a set piece, a planned alteration to the way things would be; a careful measure of what needed to happen, with the last minute adjustment completed as she heard Anjali at the rear shop door.
The blanket light from the workroom ceiling was shining down, providing enough illumination for the most delicate of needlework. Anjali realised as soon as she saw the light shining that Panya would be in the workroom. Panya would never have left the shop without the lighting adjusted to the overnight setting.
Anjali entered the room as if this were just another off-the-shelf encounter between the women, placing the files she was carrying on the cupboards to the right of the entrance door. Panya, who had remained seated as that was the pattern to be followed, was shaken by the unexpected normality of Anjali’s approach, and bought herself some time by asking, ‘How did it go?’
‘I could feel that the messages were striking home,’ Anjali answered in a measured manner. ‘You know when the cut and colour and fearlessness of the design is there. One of the Directors around the meeting room table became quite irritated. It was as if he knew that the river was flowing on a new course, in a new direction, and he could do nothing to stop it. His arguments were soon swept away by the endorsements from the other Directors.’
Panya had regained her poise and was back on script.
‘You are being pulled out of shape by your ambition,’ she said deliberately but serenely. ‘There is no foundation to this work. It can take us nowhere. You have made our tailoring subversive. This obsession has corrupted you like a fungus. It is rotting away the base that we have worked too hard to fasten in place.’
Anjali was thrown. Panya was always measured, rarely direct, and never this direct. She drew breath, and then with her words snipping like scissors, she said, ‘The past you repair, Panya, the future you design. If I could just stitch courage into your backbone we could fabricate something so colourful, so beautiful, here in this drab valley.’
Panya was now on her feet. She would work to the pattern – or at least as closely to the pattern as this unfurling affair would allow.
‘The role of the Tailor is to sew comfort into the world,’ she said with a rehearsed delivery. ‘If your fashion leads to this outcome of so much upheaval and conflict, what is the good of it? Alteration and repair fit within the structure of this valley and the lives of the people who live here. The fabrication of your design can only be forged in a hot fire of change and destruction. The cost is too high for this little tailoring business to even consider.’
Anjali saw no value in responding. She may as well have put her hand beneath an advancing iron.
‘I am not going to discuss this further,’ said Panya. Now with rising steam she continued, ‘I will simply tell you how things are going to be. Our paths seemed to have crossed like swords. I will protect what I have worked so hard to stabilise.’
She closed her eyes, which suggested that she was overcome. In reality, she was ensuring that the essential detail was being covered. This was not a piece of stitching she wanted ever to have to unpick.
‘This is what I am determined to do. To pull the needle through obstinate fabric you need to have strong fingers. I have had to sew such strength into my fingers over the last years. You need to catch a thread before it unravels; and then you ensure it is safely tied down. There is much that needs repairing here, Anjali. There are alterations that must be made.
I have already told your uncle that there is no bridging of our two positions. His investment controls the majority of this business, as you must know. He has the power to act in the best interest of the customers of Threads.’
Panya turned to the door.
‘She is like one of the figures that decorates the face of the town’s clock and turns to strike the bell with the coming of each hour,’ thought Anjali.
Panya turned back again.
‘I have had a long and very wearing day,’ she said. ‘Please make sure the lights are at the overnight setting before you leave.’