(first published in Every Day Fiction, MAY 21, 2019)
We met at art college. Dorothy was the one with talent, everyone saw that. And, I imagine, no-one could see what she saw in me. I got thrown off the course at the end of the second year, but we remained a couple. Her ambition was to be a tapestry artist. She would say that there was something utterly satisfying about the weaving process — the rhythmic accretion of the work, one thread at a time.
I was able to help in those early years, before she became a recognised name. I’d developed a nice little earner. I bought old lockets from junk shops and auction rooms, took out the photos and replaced them with bits of faded velvet and locks of hair (sometimes hers, sometimes mine, a couple of times my Auntie Jean’s). I advertised them on the Internet as “claimed to be the hair of Bonnie Prince Charlie/Rabbie Burns/Rudolf Valentino/Mata Hara, etc.” I was always careful to say that “it has proved impossible to establish the provenance of the piece, hence the remarkably low price.”
As a result of my shabby wheeling and dealing, we’d been able to set up a tapestry workshop in an old rented farmhouse in Dumfriesshire — a beautiful place at the head of a glen, with a bubbling burn at the house gable-end. It was the best of times. I remember we’d just erected her loom in the north-lit backroom, with a view of ewes and their leggy lambs on the bare, green hills outside the window. She rested one hand on my arm and the other on the loom and said, “This place will be the weft of our lives, Andy; now, we’ll supply the warp.” And she blushed, shook her head and laughed.
She persuaded me to give up the locket business (she’d always hated it) and I drifted into buying and selling antique books, having picked up a few pointers hanging around auction rooms. That was how we came across the Icelandic pamphlet. I went to the farm sale of a Dumfriesshire neighbour, Old Jon Egilsson. An Icelander, he’d settled in Scotland, buying Scottish tups (aka rams) for re-sale in Iceland, and buying Icelandic ponies for re-sale in Scotland. A cheery old fella, everyone agreed that he’d died the kind of death he would’ve wanted: he dropped dead at the sheep fank, dosing his tups. Nearly everyone at the sale was there for the tups, or the farm equipment. A general dealer turned up for the household effects, but he wasn’t particularly interested in Jon’s books, so I got ’em cheap.
Old Jon obviously had a weakness for Wild West novels: Zane Gray — he of The Riders of the Purple Sage — featured prominently. But there were quite a number of Icelandic sagas in both Icelandic and in English translation, including first editions of William Morris’s nineteenth-century translations. The Morris translations would make me a nice profit. As I was showing the translation of the Volsunga Saga to Dorothy, an old pamphlet fell out of it. She picked it up and immediately started to read it: it was a kind of sorcerer’s dictionary-cum-gallery of the ‘staves,’ or magical signs, that the Icelandic peasantry used to carve in order to bring good catches of fish, to ensure that their ewes had lots of twins, to win a sweetheart, and so on. She showed me some of the staves: they were intricate and beautiful. “Wow,” she said, “I’ve just got to put some of these staves into my tapestries.”
The first of the staves-tapestries she wove was an underwater design — swirling blues, greens and silvers, darting fish, and with the good-fishing stave incorporated into the intricate fishing net. I thought it was the best thing she’d done. On a late summer’s evening, I walked quietly into the weavery, to see her moving gently in time to a song on the CD player (“I once loved a lass”), as she battened down the filling yarn. The tapestry enthralled her and, for a few moments, I couldn’t move.
That first stave-tapestry was sold before it was even quite finished, to a New York gallery. Immediately afterwards, she started on a landscape tapestry — greens and autumnal golds, with a giant beech tree in the foreground, whose grey branches formed the good-weather stave. All through that autumn, we were fielding calls and emails from interested galleries and collectors. Some of them even travelled to Dumfriesshire to press their case. We held a sort-of-Dutch-auction among the interested parties and sold the landscape tapestry for enough money to finance a month-long holiday in New Zealand.
Dorothy started to design the sweetheart tapestry while we were staying in a holiday chalet near the Coromandel Peninsula’s hot-water beach. Secretly, I didn’t like the design, but I wasn’t too worried back then, because her finished tapestries often differed quite a lot from the initial designs. Maybe I was pre-occupied with the daily digging out of our own private hot pool on the beach at every low tide. My worries only started when she showed the design to that creep, Anthony, who owned the gallery in Auckland. We’d paid him a courtesy call when we first arrived in New Zealand. I was surprised when he turned up at the chalet, unannounced. And still more surprised when he rented one of the other chalets. I joked with her about how his attentions were repellent and slightly deranged, but she simply smiled and shook her head.
Two days later, she stopped me shovelling sand at the hot pool. “I’m not coming back to Scotland, Andy. I have to stay in Auckland with him. I’m sorry.” And then she cried.
Alone, sprawled in the airport lounge, it strikes me for the first time (and much too late) how implausibly successful I’d been last spring, fishing our burn for trout.