Taken from Issue 1 of 404 Ink | Elizabeth found the spinning wheel by mistake.
She was supposed to be helping her mother-in-law look for bits and pieces to do up for eBay, but she’d snuck off into the depths of the jumble for a few moments of quiet and wandered off the beaten path. Finally, she’d ended up at the very edge of the church hall, next to a shoogling pile of detritus primed to topple at any moment. Most of it looked to be broken.
Elizabeth’s mother-in-law didn’t like to fix broken things. She was a ‘sponge a bit of paint across an elderly coffee table and attach a hefty mark up’ kind of a person. Elizabeth, though, considered herself a fixer.
The pile was about eleven feet tall and featured three-legged chairs, a suite of kitchen cupboards with the doors hanging off, and some wonky shelves. As she looked more closely, she saw the ancient spinning wheel at the centre, forming an integral structural support.
She’d never seen a spinning wheel in person, so she couldn’t tell what was wrong with it exactly, but she was sure it could be mended. More importantly, she knew she wanted it in her life.
Elizabeth cast her eyes about for the owner of the pile. Most shoppers seemed to be avoiding this particular corner, walled in on all sides by an antique bookseller, a young woman with a vintage dress rack, and an elderly man giving tarot readings. They all had their backs to her.
“Excuse me,” Elizabeth said to nobody in particular. “I’d like to buy that spinning wheel?”
“That’ll be £25,” came a voice from within the tower. No, not within it. Behind it. There was a gap on the other side. That meant the whole lot must be free-standing. Instinctively Elizabeth took a step backwards as the owner of the voice – a tiny old woman who looked a bit like a conker – maneuvered the wheel out from the base of the junk pile.
“It’s a bit shonky,” the woman said, “but it’s fixable if you can be bothered. I couldn’t, myself. Not with my rickets being what it is.”
Elizabeth smiled politely and handed over the cash, wondering how rickets impacted on fixing a spinning wheel, but slightly afraid to ask. Her mother-in-law would be looking for her by now, and she’d have to explain that she’dgone off-piste. Being caught red-handed listening to a story from a strange old lady would only add to an already lengthy list of transgressions. As she went in search of her shopping companion, the wheel clamped awkwardly under her arm, she didn’t notice the old lady slip out of the side door of the church hall, never to be seen again.
* * *
“Look at this,” Elizabeth called. “I can get it fixed at the Bonnington Industrial Museum. That’s not far from here, is it?”
“I guess,” Tom grunted from the depths of the kitchen. He wasn’t interested in museums at the best of times, and at that moment was engaged in the creation of a particularly complicated soufflé.
“Can we go?” she asked.
She smiled to herself. When she had moved down here, she’d been surprised to learn that in Tom’s five years in the city he’d never been to a single museum, much less all the outlying collections housed in random cottages around the county. The Bonnington Industrial Museum turned out to be one of the latter.
In fact, it didn’t even have the whole of the random cottage to itself. It was just a room in a house that had once belonged to some weavers. The woman behind the counter was full of knowledge though, and her eyes lit up when she saw the broken spinning wheel.
Her excitement, she explained, came from the fact that most of the young people these days aren’t interested in spinning, weaving, or other traditional crafts. In her experience, the ones who did knit or crochet tended to go and buy synthetic wool from the pound shop. Elizabeth smiled politely and decided not to mention her most recent project, an army of sparky mouse finger puppets made from just such offending materials.
The excitable curator told them to have a wander round the museum whilst she took the wheel through to her colleague in the back room. With that, she pushed a photocopied factsheet across the counter and vanished through a green velvet curtain into the unknown.
Tom picked up the paper and peered at it. The print was tiny. Whoever had made it wanted visitors to get as much information from their stay as was humanly possible.
“There’s a loom in a shed out the back,” he announced, “and in here there’s textiles, some furniture very like some that might once have belonged to some weavers, and some advertising for the new mill which put them all out of business. It’s going to be a rollercoaster ride.”
They picked their way around the tiny room as slowly as they could, politely reading every placard and sign they could find. It wasn’t a very good museum, but they could hardly say so when the staff were within earshot.
“Done!” trilled the curator, making them jump. “But now you really must learn to use it – did you know we have a spinning group here?”
Elizabeth studiously avoided Tom’s gaze. “No!” she lied, “how wonderful.”
“Well, we do,” the curator replied. “They meet at 3pm on Sundays, so you’re just in time. Look, here’s Maxine now. She’s in charge.”
Maxine was short and stout and had very curly grey hair. At the mention of her name, she put down the spinning wheel she’d had slung over her shoulder, and fumbled in her shirt pocket for a pair of gold-framed glasses. She proceeded to look the both of them up and down over the top of them, before sticking out a hand for Elizabeth to shake.
“We meet upstairs,” she said. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
“I’ll just go for a walk, then,” Tom said. His voice was tight. “Give me a ring when you’re done.”
She shot an apologetic look. “Thanks,” she called, but he was already gone. Maxine led her up creaking stairs to a long room with low, sloping ceilings. There was a semi circle of stools at one end, and a stack of wicker baskets.
Maxine parked her spinning wheel next to one of the stools and motioned Elizabeth to do the same. She picked up two baskets, then pulled out an enormous plastic bag of fluffy wool.
“I don’t suppose you have your own?” she asked.
Elizabeth shook her head. “I didn’t know I was coming.”
“Liar,” Maxine said. “People always know they’re coming.”
“We-ell,” Elizabeth conceded, “I wanted to. But the wheel was broken and I didn’t know whether it would be fixed in time.”
Maxine pulled a fuzzy rope of wool from the bag. “Here,” she said, “use this. Have you ever spun before?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. Elizabeth watched with furrowed brow as she wound a length of wool she’d spun earlier around the bobbin, deftly threading it through the guiding hooks, then loosened the unspun fibres before winding the two together. She was so engrossed in following the movement of the other woman’s hands and feet she barely noticed the other members of the group filing into the room.
“Here,” Maxine said, “your go.”
When she was happy Elizabeth had got the hang of it enough not to spin her own hair, or prick herself and fall into a coma, Maxine settled behind her own wheel. They fell into a comfortable clack-clacking rhythm, and it was some time before Elizabeth looked up from what she was doing to examine the rest of the room. There were seven spinners altogether. Those who had come in after her and Maxine seemed to be whispering to each other, but they stopped when she caught their eyes.
“I’m Elizabeth,” she said at last, hoping this might defuse the tension in the room. Perhaps they weren’t used to having strangers at the group, in which case the best remedy was an introduction.
“We are the Spinners of Air,” said the man sitting across from her on the other end of the crescent of stools. He had very dark skin, a shiny bald head, and a serious expression on his face.
“You mean, like the River Aire?” she asked. It ran quite nearby. She’d swotted up on local knowledge before moving there with Tom. All that trivia made her an invaluable member of the pub quiz team.
The man was shaking his head, though. “No,” he said. “Not like the river. The element.”
She snuck a glance around the rest of the group to see if he was making fun of her. None of them were smirking, or shaking their head in disapproval about a joke at her expense.
“Tell her about the strangest thing you’ve ever spun, Gary,” said a woman with a waist length braid of red hair. She was rosy-cheeked, and sat carding wool with two big brushes, slapping them together a little too aggressively for Elizabeth’s liking.
“You first, Caroline,” he said. “What was it you told us last week? You spun enough human hair to make a cardigan?”
“I made the cardigan too,” Caroline said proudly. “Sold it on my Etsy shop for fifty quid. I told ‘em it was mohair.”
Elizabeth tried not to look appalled.
“I’ve spun fire,” piped up the person on Caroline’s right, who was mostly covered by a multicoloured poncho with an enormous hood.
“Shut up, Storm, you haven’t spun fire,” squeaked the person to Caroline’s left.
“ENOUGH!” Caroline thundered, and the two of them sulkily returned to their spinning.
“They’re twins,” Caroline said apologetically, as if that explained anything.
Throughout all this, the sixth woman had sat in silence with her hands folded in her lap. The spinning wheel in front of her was black. she was dressed in black, and with shiny black hair that hung to her shoulders. The overall effect was to make her already pale skin look even paler, almost translucent.
“How about you, Soo?” Maxine asked. “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever spun?”
A strange smile softened her mouth. For a long few moments, Elizabeth thought she wouldn’t say anything at all – but then she spoke. Slowly, deliberately, thinking carefully about each word to make herself understood in a second language.
“I have spun Time,” she told them. There was a burst of laughter from the twins, who got a furious look from their mother for their trouble.
“I call bullshit,” Storm said, when they had recovered themselves.
“It is not bullshit,” Soo replied cheerfully. “It is fact. I have to concentrate hard to do it, but I can. I could teach you, if I chose…” She paused, giving the rest of the group a significant look. “But I won’t. It is dangerous. After all, I can pull out a thread from the air around you and spin it so tight that your whole self would begin to unravel. I have destroyed many lives in this way. Cities, also.”
“Don’t be daft,” Maxine said. “How would you even start winding time around your bobbin?”
Soo did not answer this in words. She merely smiled enigmatically, and put her right hand in the air as though she was feeling about for something.
“That’s how you spin air,” Gary said, but he was silenced by a look from Soo. She was rubbing her thumb and index finger together now, as though there were something gripped between them. Apparently satisfied she had what she wanted, Soo made the motion of tying something to the bobbin, and then began to operate her wheel. Unlike the others, it spun without a sound. What was it made of ? Elizabeth wondered. It was so black and shiny and smooth – could it be ebony? It didn’t seem like wood, somehow. It reminded her of stone, like obsidian. Soo’s face was animated as she worked, apparently spinning something, though none of them could see what it was. They felt the air begin to cool though, and each of them noticed a curious sensation that everything seemed to be going into slow motion. Then quite suddenly everything sped up and went
much too fast.
Elizabeth found herself downstairs in the museum, in the car with Tom, at home in the flat, at the church hall surrounded by jumble. “Found anything good?” asked her mother-in-law from behind an enormous pile of broken looking furniture.
Elizabeth stared at her in shock, but couldn’t work out why she was surprised to see her. They had come here together, after all. They went to the church hall every other Saturday, looking for jumble that could be done up for eBay.
“No,” she said, feeling sad although she wasn’t sure why.
“Nothing’s caught my eye.”
- By Ali George