Pieces of Molly: An Ordinary Life

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Molly's journey starts as everyone's does, in the womb. In most memoirs the ten years after conception and birth are swiftly passed over, but here we see life from the beginning through the eyes of Molly, a small child grappling with the realities of life as she grows up in rural England at the end of the Second World War. She is a curious little detective, keen to find out as much as she can about life and love. For her, the shadows behind the doors only make sense in hindsight, and buried family secrets come to light as she struggles with the problem of how and who to be in the world. This is a story that examines the boundaries between memory and imagination, hope and illusion.

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Chapter One

ePub

In which Molly is born: one small and insignificant human being arrives with great difficulty in a village by the sea, and we meet her young parents, dancing from being a couple to a threesome with a baby. An almost deadly three-day labour threatens to cut this story off at the beginning: but Molly, unnamed as yet, survives, and so does her mother.

How can we conserve this stuff we carry round without distorting it? And would we know if we did? The conservation of an old tapestry requires a clear, cool stable environment. Whose tapestry is this? The needle, as the saying goes, though it has clothed many, remains naked. Naked perhaps, but not innocent.

Sometime in early November, one night maybe or one early morning before things started to get going in the outside world, one of a myriad of sperm lashed its little tail and collided with an egg—was it waiting, or was it just launching itself like people do down a busy street, anyway it was one of those unremarkable miracles which happen every millisecond of each human day on earth. The world began for one child as cell multiplication began, that night or morning in the nineteen-forties. Slipping through a gap in existence's framework, into a space not especially made for her, but one she took up and ran with.

 

Chapter Two

ePub

In which we see how this particularly difficult birth will echo on down the years. Some mistakes may never be undone, and this trauma reverberates until Molly's mother's dying day.

Freezing is probably or so they say not harmful to objects provided that condensation does not occur anywhere in the process. You need to allow the objects to re-humidify before they are handled.

So Molly was born, in the same room where her father had been born, and his father before him. Her ma was exhausted: the idealised child of pregnancy turned into a child attacker that nearly killed her, but came out pink and white, looking unscathed by the ordeal; by the doctors’ calculations extremely overdue. That very year the Greenwich Royal Observatory installed its first quartz-crystal clock, ten times as accurate as the pendulum system it replaced. But something had gone wrong with their clock already, for this mother and her child who tried daily to cling to an iceberg, desperate as a little chinstrap penguin thrown up again and again by the Antarctic waves onto the frozen land. For these two the time seemed to be always a little out of joint. Babies are born in rhythm with the world, researchers now can show, but this was a tough call for both parties, and the lyrical phase ended rather than began with being born.

 

Chapter Three

ePub

In which Molly herself enters the narrative, as a three year old, told by her adult self, or one of them, starting to become concerned about who she is, and how she is seen by others. Vestiges of war hover in her dreams, ‘germs’ and ‘Germans’ are hopelessly confused, and her hero father assumes grand proportions in her mind.

The question keeps coming—how can Molly work on these fragments, from the point of view of her child and adult selves? Display procedures involve the canny use of colour and light. Then damaged objects can deceive the eye of the casual observer into seeing them as whole.

Perhaps she should be allowed a little of her own voice? Will the ‘I’ tell us something different? She is struggling and straining, tapping and moaning a bit, wanting to get out of that constraining box. The lid's fixed down but she is rattling at the catch, and you can see part of an eye staring angrily through the tantalising fragment between the sides and the top of the well-made prison. She's more than ready to speak.

 

Chapter Four

ePub

In which the fourth character enters the family drama. It was a shock in different ways to Molly, her mother and her father when Molly's brother was born. Although Molly learns to live with him, the stage is set for the gradual build-up of sibling battles over a lifetime.

When you are trying to repair and restore this old tapestry, you have to unroll it section by section, so that each piece can be brought to the front for detailed working.

So here, as Freud would say, we have a classic scenario. There is the beautiful child-wife, the heroic husband, man of the land, and the bright button daughter. Can this last, you wonder? Molly's mother was putting on weight, and she went to her doctor for advice about her diet. What did he tell her? That she was pregnant. (Maybe she really didn't know: her periods had always been erratic). She was appalled, aghast, depressed, suicidal, refusing to be tortured again in the service of the implacable gene. And maybe depressed about something else besides. What an awful pregnancy it seemed, though apparently healthy, for Molly's mother and for him, Molly's future little brother slowly and inexorably growing towards the day his reluctant mother so dreaded. This birth was dreaded too by Molly's father. He would gladly give up the idea of a possible son and heir if it meant having to choose again who should live and who should die, as he had been asked to do before. Save my wife, please save my wife.

 

Chapter Five

ePub

In which Molly describes the exciting world of the farm, where pigs eat their young, her three year old brother learns to shoot and kill, and her parents struggle with the weather as well as with various farming projects, many of which fail. Molly even manages to see a chicken lay an egg.

Good conservation results in as little interference with the historic object as possible, and this makes the briefing of the conservator of the utmost importance.

Again Molly batters her fists against the sides of the constraining box. Can she, will she, be heard in the tattered scribbling of voices which lie at the margins of every life? These voices come and go. Where is there room in all this cosmic babble for the noise of one little individual ordinary life?

Well, she's going on so much, let her have another say…

Going on. Well, at least she did. As we all try to do. Molly's mother's elegantly plucked eyebrows are raised at this point. They may well stay that way.

 

Chapter Six

ePub

In which Molly at last gets to read her father's diaries and account books, which give the backdrop to the more intimate family life gradually eroding over time. Her parents work hard in their different ways, and Molly begins to learn something about the separate roles of men and women on the farm, as well as carrying on her researches into life and love.

Old repairs which are ugly and distorting the original tapestry should be removed. Cut the threads of the repairs with sharp scissors or a scalpel blade and pull free.

When Molly's son was young, her dad used to send his grandson pictures cut out of the Farmer's Weekly and the Eastern Daily Press. They stuck them all in a scrapbook. He sent pictures of heavy horses, jingling with polished harness and brasses, sheep farmers leaning on their sticks in front of their flocks, with faithful dogs alert at their feet. At the beginning of the book is glued a letter.

Sam boy, I hope you keep these pictures I send you. As I see the future, we will not get anything like this in say twenty to forty years, and in your life time that's a very short time. All these lovely pictures will be grand to look back on, and perhaps you will think of me. Granddad xx

 

Chapter Seven

ePub

In which we are introduced to another of Molly's heroes: Steve, one of the village boys, the same age as Molly, but who knows so much more than she does about things she can only have an inkling of. She wants to find out, but feels guilty too, and steals to make up for the lack, or so she feels, of her mother's love.

To join the lining and the tapestry together a guide line of thread is first placed across the width of the tapestry. Match a marked grid line with the tapestry line. Fix with pins. Chain stitch can then be worked in a line to hold together these memories.

If her dad shot more rabbits than were needed, he gave them to the farm hands, who lived in the village, and with whose children Molly and her brother loved to play. But there was unease not far beneath the shouts and the laughter. Those village kids who came to join their Bonfire Night fun were a source both of pleasure and of pain. There was Steven and there was Jimmie, and Rosie whose granddad, old Mr Bearton, lived over the road from the old farm house in a cottage belonging to their uncle's farm at the other end of the village. Rosie had a brother but he was younger than John, almost too little to count, and then there was Carla, whose mum, always in her slippers, lived next door to the Beartons. Even at four or five or six, with her fuzzy blonde hair and her gap-toothed rather vacant smile, you could see she'd grow up fast, that Carla. Sure to be pregnant at fourteen was what Molly overheard one of the village women say. And of course she was. Had more pricks than a pincushion, was what they said later, when her stomach bulged. The village gang let Molly and John play, but they made it quite clear too that it was a bit on sufferance: Molly and her brother lived in a big house and they were ‘snobs’. The kids didn't venture up the drive to knock on the farm house back door and John and Molly certainly would never knock on theirs either, but they just drifted casually down the curving drive, kicking the gravel up in a show of nonchalance and hoping the little village gang would be there. These kids seemed to know so much that Molly didn't know, and they radiated for her a kind of louche glamour which spoke of worlds without the restrictions she chafed at in her own.

 

Chapter Eight

ePub

In which Molly goes to a local convent school when she is five. While she is eager to be clever and admired, she is also assailed by a growing guilt about her sins, and worries more and more about Hell's Gates opening.

Important: when rolling on it is vitally important that the correct tension between tapestry threads and cotton lining be maintained section by section. But what is the correct tension, and should there be much, or does it form the inevitable backdrop to any project, large or small?

While Molly's mother objected to religion, she didn't object to the education nuns could provide, and when her daughter grew too old for the nursery school at the bottom of the muddy lane, she graduated to the convent school in the local town, navy felt hat and coat in winter, blue cotton dress, straw hat and blazer in summer, she was finally a regular schoolgirl. At school her already over-developed conscience had a huge boost, and so too did her religious fervour. The robust certainty of the catechism, with its questions learned by rote and declaimed with childish zeal, constructed a safe box designed to keep out her doubts and fears. What is a sacrament? An outward sign of inward grace. What are Holy Orders? Molly wanted to be ‘Ordained by Jesus Christ’, circumscribed by doctrine. ‘I believe’, she chanted, ‘in the Holy Catholic Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body’—the resurrection of the body? She couldn't quite get her mind around that one, even then, so she rolled on regardless to life everlasting, such a contrast to the land of the everlasting dead. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth, she learned, shall awake. Some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. A bitter fate. How can anything last for ever? It made her heart race yet again, for fear of what awaited her in the hereafter because of her own sins.

 

Chapter Nine

ePub

In which Molly describes life at home on the farm in summer, and in the village too, when the local holiday camps fill with ‘townies’: strange speaking aliens who love to play Bingo and sing bawdy songs. The adult world is hard to read, and she tries to understand about life as seen in jolly picture postcards, while Steve encourages her to smoke fag ends they pick up from the road.

You can repair a broken section of your tapestry in several ways: you can use either a weaver's knot, or you can introduce a new warp, but a bit less thick than the original one, carefully now.

While school could have its joys and its heartaches, you came home at the end of the day, on the red double decker bus where the children swung around the stair rail and shoved and giggled on the top deck.

Swop you three refreshers for a bull's eye.

Beat you to the front seat.

Rubbing the ink off their fingers and thumbs, knocking elbows and knees three to a seat till the conductor came to sort it out.

 

Chapter Ten

ePub

In which Molly's wish to know more about the grownups results in uncertainty and pain. She escapes when she can to her grandparents’ world in the next village, which seems a thousand miles away from the headaches building in her own.

Sometimes there may be no bright metal thread left. In cleaning tapestries, even the stitches holding down the threads may be destroyed. Once the metal thread is cleaned it must be lacquered to prevent the return of tarnish. Sometimes this is impossible to achieve.

Molly wants a word.

What, another one? demands her mother.

One small stumpy-legged girl just refuses to leave the stage. She still wants to ‘hold forth’. That's her mother here, describing the behaviour of anyone except herself wanting a part, speaking what might be in mind.

Still going on. Will she never stop? Does anyone need to know?

Molly's been quite good though, quite quiet up to now, hasn't she. She hasn't really put herself forward too much, do you think? That would be an embarrassment to everybody. So goo on, gel, as your old friend Steve would say, have another go.

 

Chapter Eleven

ePub

In which the two worlds collide, the box of secrets overflows, and Molly is sent to boarding school. It is an attempt at escape, but soon proves to be of no help in keeping at bay the drama of life back home.

There are several ways to mend a broken warp. You can either use a weaver's knot, or you can replace the break with a newer, thinner, thread. If you have by your own carelessness cut into the canvas, you can turn it over, and clear the break from its surrounding stitches. Then you have to carry on, tease it out a little more.

So there were these two worlds, separated only by a few miles, but seeming miles apart in emotional territory. Gold, if pure, does not tarnish. As Molly lay in the huge feather bed at her grandparents’ house on summer evenings listening to the purling coo of the wood-pigeons, all felt right with the world. Their call could comfort her throughout her life, wherever she was. There there, pet, they said, there there. When she fell asleep on those warm nights at The Retreat, she could still hear outside the rooks bickering over sticks to build their nests in the high elms, shouting Shame, Shame, Shame, over and over into the dusk. Rooks may seem dysfunctional with their eternal family quarrels, squawking aerial soap operas, but they were the ones who could tell far before the experts which elms had been stricken with the Dutch disease, and they refused to nest there, even when the trees still looked sound.

 

Chapter Twelve

ePub

In which the weaving, which never truly ends, reaches a time when it's finished enough to be hung. The house is swept away by change, but the babble of voices is not so easily subdued. And is every step you take forever? Molly's voice joins the never-ending line of wondering words.

Textile conservators need a profound knowledge of the factors which lead to decay. They also need to understand how to slow it down. They have to cultivate a deep understanding of how the original objects were made. It's not the only occupation where it helps to understand the context.

Now we've got to have a go at hanging this tapestry with all its imperfections, in the best available light. Starting from one end, gradually unroll it. It takes two people to hold the bottom of the roll, and one to fasten it to the rail. That makes three.

Stand back and look at it. There's the North Sea, sea of Molly's infancy, where she began, enthroned inside her mother, queen baby at the beginning, in the usual way. Two hundred and twenty thousand square miles of it, ranging in depth from a hundred feet to two thousand. Sea, the onlie begetter of everything. The scene of arrival, the point of departure. The sound of its advancing and receding waves lives inside Molly as close as her own heartbeat. At its extreme edges crouches the great Norse giant Hrae Svelga the corpse swallower, who sends blighting icy winds over the face of Molly's tiny plot of earth as he beats his eagle arms. Here be germs, and Germans, dragons and a good deal else, as the old maps used to say. Dusty little secrets carried away by storms into the deep. In its depths in some protected cave sit the three old women, the Norns, spinning the never-ending threads of life. Molly sees her youthful father, who didn't learn to swim till he was an old man with a heated pool installed on his own patch, jumping and tossing in the great brown rollers of this huge North Sea. Time's toppling wave. She sees herself as a little girl, running away on stubby legs from the pursuing waves up the sands of the beach.

 

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