Chapter 14: Uncle
Anjali’s uncle was in the far corner of his workshop, working on a garment of evident quality. Her uncle’s workshop had become the place where the highest quality garments were brought; those that were definitely worth the work of repairing and reforming for another existence. Her uncle, however, would always point out when the family gathered and remarked on his remarkable achievements in tailoring, ‘I still make most of my money by replacing pocket linings.’
Anjali knew better than to disturb her uncle when he was working on such a garment, until he was clearly ready to be disturbed. She waited at the workshop entrance until he had reached a point where the garment could be placed back on its mannequin. She walked past the cluttered benches, which had given her so much comfort as a child, and said quietly to her uncle, ‘I need to talk to you. I have some problems at Threads.’
Her uncle pushed several pins back into his pincushion, and then looking at Anjali over his thick glasses said, ‘Come into the office. We need to talk openly with one another.’
Once in the office, the door shut behind them, Anjali waited whilst her uncle searched for the right words, in the same way that he would search for the right needle for each tailoring job.
‘Panya has spoken with me about the difficulties arising from your work with the Wetledale Mill Manager,’ he said eventually.
‘I cannot work with Panya any more,’ said Anjali, with that same emotion that causes a reservoir to overflow its dam. ‘I want you to take her back. I need an assistant who will assist.’
‘Anjali you remind me of the river that flows beyond our factory wall. One day there is the calm sound of water flowing smoothly to the sea. The next moment we are rushing to get the expensive fabrics to the high floors in case that same river decides to flow right through our workshop, destroying everything it touches.’
He sat down so that the cluttered office desk now lay between them.
‘You are asking me to take an action that will lead to the damage of a good business that the family has invested in.’
‘The only question is whether Panya makes a good assistant at Threads,’ said Anjali before he could continue. ‘The business is successful. I made Threads a success before Panya was ever in the picture. Now she is there, and the business is pulling apart at the seam.’
Her uncle unfastened the pincushion that was still strapped to his arm, laid his glasses on the desk, and looked straight at Anjali.
‘Panya thinks that working with clients such as the Factory Manager will cause the very foundations of Threads to be washed away.’
He paused, perhaps for thought, perhaps for effect.
‘I think she is right,’ he said as definitively as a cross-stitch. ‘You force me to make a choice. I think Panya is right.’
‘You told me to find new markets, uncle, new things we can sell, and I have done that,’ Anjali responded with the same resolve.
‘A tailor must understand her tools, Anjali. You cannot embroider with a thimble. So what is Threads for?’
Anjali was about to answer, but he continued. ‘I will tell you what Threads is for. In this valley the climate is the enemy of clothing, and therefore the friend of the tailor who profits from opposing its cold and damp. That is Threads. That is all Threads is, and all it ever will be. Is that what you want, Anjali? To stay in this valley and tailor away the cold and the damp?
Threads is a humble alteration and repairs tailoring business. It is true that you established Threads; but you know, as I know, that you built Threads as a stepping stone that would take you on to other things.’
He rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day, and he could no longer see as clearly as he really needed to see.
‘Panya is a good worker,’ he said. ‘She will keep that business going. Panya is the perfect alteration and repair Tailor. She has an appetite for making bad things good and meagre things better.’
‘Uncle Arnav, you are supporting Panya against your niece.’
His tone changed, and furrows framed in his face like the ripples of a sharp wind on river water.
‘You do not know the contempt that I feel when I stitch the lining back on a pocket of a jacket that never deserved a hanger in the first place. I am feeding dogs. But, as you have seen, there is much money in dog food.’
His voice rose like the sound of a sewing machine whose needle has lost its cotton.
‘Your uncle Arnav does not want his niece to feed so many dogs.’
Anjali sat down at the other side of the table and stared closely at him, as she had once stared into the depths of the river in search of different answers.
‘Every person is the tailor of their own future,’ he said more quietly. ‘Will you forever stitch the past back together, or will you design a future that is worthy of you? Repair what has gone before, and the river of time will just sweep you away. Design great clothing and your influence will continue as long as the mountains still stand.’
He paused; and then his voice turned suddenly as warm as masala chai.
‘I knew we would arrive here someday. As soon as I first saw you working with damask. Repairs and alterations to garments; that was just a stepping stone for you, Anjali. The only reason that you ever collected those old and traditional garments was that they were pathways. You could see in them the pattern that would guide you to a different future in a different valley. I honour you for that Anjali. I faced the same dilemma in my own valley in Uttar Pradesh. Do you design the future, or do you repair the past? They are two different directions. Do you flow with the river, or do you sit on the boulders. I would not be your uncle if I did not tell you this. If you stay standing on those same stepping stones, in time the river will rise and drown you. You will be so unhappy that it will drown you.’
He was quiet for a moment.
‘A boulder exists to help you to cross the water. That stepping stone serves its purpose and then you leave it behind you. Time never tires and never slows. It forces you into a future that you must stitch together for yourself. There are fabrics that you must mix, and textures that you must design. If you are a tailor, be a tailor. If you are a designer, then you should be a designer.’
He looked straight at Anjali again; and she realised how rarely it was that he ever looked straight at anybody.
‘When I cannot decide on something, I have often found it helpful to let the river decide. When you next walk along the river, Anjali, look at your reflection in the water and tell me what it is that you see there. Do you see a tailor who stitches over the past, or do you see a designer who sketches in the future?’
‘Wait here,’ he said suddenly. ‘This is a moment that demands fresh masala chai.’
He returned eventually, setting two large mugs down on the table.
He looked at her through the steam rising from his own mug.
‘Our family has made garments out of richer fabrics with each generation. I am sure that the needle you are holding carries a thread that will take you forward to even finer fabrics.’
He took a sip from his mug, and it seemed to bring him new inspiration.
‘Did you know that most stars in the universe just turn out iron towards the end of their lives? It is only the greatest stars that make more precious materials than iron. And only the very largest and brightest of the stars of the sky that will come to weave gold in the end. I know you will weave gold, Anjali. But such a bright star should burn in a better valley than this.’
Chapter 15: Burning twill
As Anjali arrived at the front of the Wetledale Weaving Mill, later that day, there was a police car parked in one of the visitors’ parking spaces. There were two firemen packing a firehose away onto a fire engine, which was standing outside the open shutter of one of the three weaving sheds.
Eileen, now dressed in a plain working suit, led Anjali from the security gate to a meeting room, its door to the left of a rusted coffee machine in the reception area. On the way, they passed through the largest of the warehouses, crossing the edge of the machine floor. The mechanical tenacity of the weaving machines rattled in their ears. She followed Eileen along the floor markings. The yellow lines guided them behind the largest of the machines, and Anjali could sense the rough cloth it was producing.
‘We have had to call off this afternoon’s review meeting,’ said Eileen as soon as the meeting room door was shut against the noise of the weaving machines, although Anjali could still feel their vibration through the table.
‘We have had a small fire in one of the weaving sheds – the one we will be shutting. It is a bit too much of a coincidence. There is an understandable belief amongst the production managers that it was started deliberately. We will have to wait and see what the fire investigation service company reports.’
She poured Anjali some plain water from a jug on the table.
‘The General Manager asked me to meet with you,’ Eileen said, ‘and give you a briefing so that you know where we are.’
She looked down at some notes she had made on a pad of lined paper.
‘We have received confirmation, just this morning, that we can make the changes we suggested at the Board of Directors Meeting.’
‘They have accepted the proposals from the presentation?’ Anjali asked.
‘Err – yes and no,’ Eileen replied, hesitated, and then added hurriedly, evidently keen to stress that this was an important point that needed to be made, ‘It is good news really.’
Eileen returned to her notes again.
‘The Danish family have decided not to close the mill, just some of the underused machines. Production of more refined fabrics will transfer to one of the Group’s other mills; but much of the basic production we will keep here. Our older machines are all written out of the accounts, and are well suited to low cost contracts. We also have lower wage costs than the other mills in the Group. We are a relatively remote site you see.’
She turned over the page of her notepad; then finding that she had already covered that point, turned the page again.
‘It is very likely that we will shut one of the weaving sheds; although that shed could well be reequipped at some stage. The Factory Manager is shocked that employees from Wetledale should be reacting negatively to what is actually good news. And should this warehouse fire have been a deliberate act, he is of course also concerned at how quickly the news of the closing of the weaving shed got out. This is a small valley. We need to work as one if we are to do well here.
The Factory Manager has called an emergency meeting to discuss how we manage the messaging of the coming changes.’
Eileen looked down at her notes again, apparently trying to make sense of what she had written.
‘It is perhaps a strange thing to say, but we are fortunate that this is such a cold and damp valley with a river that adds to its humidity. It is ideal for spinning and weaving wool, and being on the edge of things our wages are lower. We are very competitive and capable weavers of wool.’
Eileen smiled with the warmth of a mannequin.
‘Sheep wool always processes very cleanly in the damp air of Wetledale valley. In the view of our managers, it is that capability that was the deciding factor for the Danish Family Board. We carry out coarse weaving of sheep wool in the larger of the weaving sheds; for coats and capes and flannel with a plain or twill weave. The military is a good customer.’
She looked down at her notes again and, as she did, ran over the same lines.
‘There are places that are just right for some things,’ she said again. It reminded Anjali of the repeated stitching that secures a vulnerable button in place on the exposed front of a coat.
‘Wetledale and wool were made for each other. I think it just took the Danish Chairman a little time to realise that.’
It seemed, to Anjali, that a stream of confusing and contradictory information was flowing over her.
‘The Danish Board was surely convinced by the excellent presentation that the Factory Manager gave,’ she said, emphasising the ‘surely convinced.’
‘It is hard to know what it is that decides these things,’ responded Eileen, her words drifting away towards the end.
Then she added more definitively, ‘It seems that the family was already thinking of transferring the red headed lady to run their German production site.’
She looked up and added with sincerity strapped around her every word, ‘Our Factory Manager is very appreciative of what you have done for him – for all of us. Your work will always receive acknowledgment in this company.’
Eileen came to the end of the scribbling on the pages of her note book. She flipped the pages over so that a clean and empty page was now on top.
‘Sheep wool always processes very cleanly in the damp air of Wetledale valley,’ she said, summarising again the essential point. ‘We hope to be producing all of the wool-based materials for the Danish group here in time. We need to get that right. That is the Factory Manager’s absolute priority.’
Eileen rose from her seat, indicating that this meeting had reached its conclusion.
‘I am sure that you will be hearing from us in the future. Our Factory Manager has often reminded the office staff of the importance of using every tool that we have to influence outcomes that will construct a solid future for the Wetledale Weaving Mill.’
Chapter 16: Return
Anjali drove out of the town heading up the valley, following the direction she had once taken as a four-year-old. The sun was shining coolly through the windscreen as she approached the point where the river ran against a long, green meadow, its edges shaded by willows.
She stopped and, as she opened the car door, the river reached out to her with a memory of childhood. She could sense the damp breath of the river from across the meadow, and she could hear it turning down the valley from its bed.
‘If you cannot decide what you are, then let the river decide,’ were her uncle’s words.
The meadow had a footpath along one edge. The path crossed the river by a narrow stone bridge.
Anjali followed the footpath, which was muddy in places, and sat down on the dry stone wall edging of the bridge. She could see the water playing across boulders and tugging at willow branches as it ran down towards her from upstream. The cold and angled light of the late afternoon made the water appear to flow like silk. To Anjali it also had the allure of silk. When you stand amongst it, touch it, smell it, you know that those who deny its power are the ones who lack the honesty that silk has in its every stitch. The most beautiful of fabrics will always support you. You just need to reach out to them.
In the meeting with Eileen, with the clattering of old machinery reaching through the walls, she had sensed that even for the Factory Manager’s Personal Assistant, a woman who had sounded so convinced of the power of the designs they had shared, her memory of events had been altered. The essential details had been sketched over again. There was not even the finest acceptance, throughout those clattering weaving sheds, of the truth of Anjali’s creation of influence-through-design. It was an idea that would not fit within their narrow confines.
Anjali had witnessed the colour and texture and form that surrounded that Director’s board meeting in a chiffon of conviction. It had existed, it had occurred, she was sure of that.
‘When there is no honesty in memory, what is the point of it?’ she said to the river. ‘To serve this Factory Manager’s agenda, memory is modified and belief is wrapped loosely around it. If any particular truth does not contribute to the blueprint for his struggle for a slither of power, it is cast aside, it is thrown out of recollection and might just as well never have existed.
If the facts do not fit the requirement, he reaches for a convenient patch and sews it into place with an unbreakable thread and a bent needle.’
The river continued its steady flow beneath the bridge.
‘I cannot give up on this,’ she said to herself. ‘I have created garments that are eloquent; garments that communicate in an irresistible way; and a fine garment will never finish saying what it has to say.
Designing garments springs from necessity, just as the river springs from the unavoidable flow of water from the hills. Water makes a river, and the river has no choice but to flow. Design makes a true tailor, and a true tailor has no choice but to create.’
Anjali fell silent. She had suddenly realised that these were just words. She had started to doubt herself. Design is the answer to a series of questions. Questions arise out of doubt. All design is built on a foundation of doubt.
Doubt, for Anjali, like the damp of the valley, was always in the air. Her understanding of what she had achieved with her fabrics, the way that her designs had lifted and carried the presentation to the Danish Board, was beginning to evaporate as mist evaporates as the morning advances.
Anjali looked down into the quiet river, hoping that some explanation would be swirling in its steady depths. All she could see was the empty flow of water against the scattered gravel bed of the river.
Then there was a ripple of wind across the valley. The flat surface of the waters creased and a light drizzle, which had come from nowhere, trimmed the surface with a sequin of circles. The pattern had altered. The river was running with reflections again.
Anjali stared deeply into the weaving waters and the outline of an idea soaked into her mind.
‘Did you think I would forget you?’ said the river.
Chapter 17: In to the sea
It was the same room, in the corner of the Mill, where Anjali had first met the Danish Chairman of the Board. But it was a very different room in many ways. The early-evening hour of this meeting suited Anjali. It helped her to slip through the invisible threads that kept everyone in their place at the Wetledale Weaving Mill. She was sure that she had little to lose: but she still did not want to run up against the Factory Manager or his Personal Assistant.
The Chairman of the Wetledale Weaving Company looked down at the drawings and careful descriptions that Anjali had sent to him, in the form of a personal letter with important documents enclosed, delivered by courier.
He splayed the garment designs across the oak of the table top, his eyes scanning over the coloured sketches and the highlighted words in the various descriptions.
‘I thank you for the copy of the designs that you used at our last Board meeting. It was an extraordinary thing to send these to me; and I see they are accompanied by your notes explaining almost every stitch.’
There was a mantlepiece clock on the bookcase at the back of the room which, Anjali suddenly noticed, was ticking, fast, like a heartbeat.
‘I am very interested in your designs, Anjali Darji,’ he said, taking her full name from her business card.
‘I have to tell you that I was not really a supporter of keeping the Wetledale Mill open. I was unconvinced of the long-term possibilities of the place. But the Factory Manager’s presentation to me was reasonable; and I wanted the unbiased view of the whole Management Board.’
He scanned the table top.
‘My view was swayed by the second meeting. But I am now questioning just what it was that swayed me.’
‘My designs were only intended to communicate clearly the important facts in the proposal,’ said Anjali, feeling that her work was being called into question.
‘Well then,’ he replied.
He stared down at the designs and the clock ticked onwards.
‘This is interesting,’ he said, still studying the designs. ‘The idea of such communication, such influence, through the subtle delivery of the essential message, whilst the cynical mind is otherwise occupied on the deceptive detail of the words.’
He looked up and leaned back in his seat.
‘It was an extraordinary thing to send these designs to me. What made you think of doing such a thing?’
‘I was looking into the river that runs through the valley and the idea came to me. I think this approach to garment design is a successful one. There are others who disagree. I realised, yesterday, that my concept of targeting design had no more permanence than a ripple on the surface of the water. I did not want this form of design to disappear back into the depths of the river from which it came. There was a chance that you could be interested. I realised that I had reached a point where there was nothing to lose.’
‘Well then,’ he said again.
And then, as if melting slightly, he added, ‘It is when looking across the delicate hoar frosts in the early morning in the woods around my home in Denmark, where my thoughts seem to be the clearest. Perhaps the things around us are always talking in the language that they feel we will most likely listen to.’
The beat of the clock seemed to have slowed. ‘Perhaps it is not the clock but time that is slowing,’ Anjali thought.
‘I find it engrossing how carefully you have set out the things that the audience needs to think. The conversion of logical thought into a message that the eyes receive and accept. The eyes are the weak point in the human armour of logic. The eyes do not approach the message with the cynicism that reasoned thought allows. The eyes accept things for what they are – or rather what they appear to be. In your design, the argument looks strong. The impression is given that the Factory Manager’s approach is certain to succeed. Seeing is certainly believing.’
He leaned back in his chair again.
‘On looking closely at your work, I grow more convinced that I have suffered from fashion being used against me.’
Anjali was moved to defend her work again, but something came out of nowhere and stopped her.
‘I am surprised at my reaction to this,’ the Chairman continued. ‘But having been on the receiving end of such an initiative, and being convinced that my view was influenced by the messaging of your designs to a greater extent than I would admit to the other Board Members…..
Take note of that Anjali Darji,’ he said suddenly and emphatically. ‘These are confidential matters.’
His tone changed as sunlight breaks through a hole in a blanket of grey clouds.
‘Nevertheless, I am keen to discuss the nature of your work, and very probably also its further possibilities.’
He breathed in like a swimmer about to dive into the melee.
‘It reminds me of those models of faces that contain the elements of the human face, but reversed outwards. When the model is side-on you can see it for what it is – the negative of a human face. Then the model turns so that the reversed-out human face turns towards you. The design is released, and all you can see is a normal face. Even though you know it is a device, you cannot force your brain to see past it.’
He rose from his seat and wandered to the windows in the corner of the office, as if looking to ensure they were not being observed from the street beyond the windows.
He turned back to Anjali, his form set against the orange light rising from the deserted streets.
‘Our Family, if we are honest with ourselves, are just weavers of coarse wool. This damp valley is probably the ideal place for us. But like everyone, we want to be the best in the world at something. And – as is often the case – the one thing that we want to be the best at is actually something that we are not yet very good at.’
He looked across the room, and she followed his eyes to three posters, set in powder-blue frames, promoting a range of fabrics.
‘The manufacture of great garments is a brutal market, where fashion outweighs achievement. There are certain materials we have developed that should be far better appreciated than they are. I often consider how we could and should better communicate our achievements to an ever more cynical audience.’
He returned to his chair and sat down.
‘As a family business, we are also prone to firm and inflexible confrontation. Our plans come together like explosions in reverse. Each project is picked out of the shrapnel of a series of explosions. The wounds most likely never properly heal. Just one explosion in ten, if we are lucky, will end in something that is workable.
If I had the power to communicate conviction and outcome in a more irresistible fashion, I sense there would be less blood on the carpet.’
He smiled for the first time since Anjali first met him.
‘I find your idea of targeted design intriguing. I have been on the receiving end of such a weapon and I am, as a consequence, keen to develop it further and see how the cut and thrust of my adversaries in business could be better controlled.’
He looked at her, and Anjali recognised the look of resolution that she had seen at the end of their first meeting.
‘The question I have is how keen are you? If you wish to pursue this idea then you must come to Denmark. There are things that, I know from experience, require a close eye on their development. I have seen many good ideas come to nothing because someone, somewhere, did not want it to succeed.’
He gathered Anjali’s designs together, placed them back in the envelope and handed the envelope to her.
‘Come to Denmark, that is the commitment I need. We will give it a year and then see where we are. Agreed?’
Chapter 18: Threads
‘I feel sorry for Anjali,’ said Panya to her niece, who had recently joined Threads of Arrow Street as Panya’s assistant.
Panya’s explanation to Anjali’s uncle was couched in terms that she knew he would understand.
‘I need my niece to help cover the busy times that come as the March winds mix into April showers,’ she had told him.
Panya looked up and across the room. Her niece was pushing one of the commercial irons with the noticeable care of someone still very much feeling her way.
‘Push that more firmly,’ said Panya. ‘The secret of good tailoring is in knowing how to press a garment accurately, untiringly and hard.’
She pushed a needle firmly into the material, pulling it through from the other side with the same dexterity.
‘I was forced to consult Anjali’s uncle about the differences between Anjali and me. There was nothing else that I could possibly have done. There was nothing else that offered itself.’
They both worked silently until Panya had finished the line of stitches, fastening the white thread firmly in place.
‘I remember,’ said Panya, gesticulating with the needle, ‘I once asked my father, one cold winter, not to put traps down to kill the mice. “But you have to kill mice to protect your quality of life and your larder,” my father replied.’
She folded the blouse she had been working on, and placed it carefully on the consulting room’s well-ordered table.
‘I protested,’ she continued. ‘I said to him, but the mice are having a hard time of it as well this winter.
“If the mice would just take a little, I could live with it. The trouble with mice is that they just don’t know when to stop,” was my father’s firm reply.’
Panya picked up another garment, its waist needing extending like so many as the years advance. She reached for a tape measure and, needing to concentrate, fell silent.
‘Measure twice, cut once,’ she said under her breath.