Excerpt from 'Locked Rooms'

The second draft reads all the way through.   Like it's a book, even - albeit a mangled, contradictory, un-edited one.   In celebration of that milestone, here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Locked Rooms.  

Were it not for the light in the window, he might never have noticed the chapel in the first place.   To the best of the tailor’s reckoning, he was nearly thirty miles from Frederickton, and it had been raining off and on for three days.   Having spent innumerable months walking through the rain when in uniform, Torrent Harrow was somewhat inured to the dampness soaking through his collar.  Better still, the tailor was alone on the road, not marching in mud churned up by several thousand of his fellows.   The road was still well-packed despite the rain, and  the ruts easily avoided.   The mud was reddish; Torrent had very nearly convinced himself that this was due to some natural condition of the soil - mine tailings perhaps, or fragments of rusting iron.  

    Although the cut of Torrent’s coat was generous, it was no good substitute for a tent, and the tailor had already spent two nights huddled beneath it in the rain.   He was nearly resigned to spending a third night in a similar manner when the tailor saw a leaping flicker of red out of the corner of his eye.   Lifting his gaze from the mud of the road, Torrent peered into the trees.   It appeared to be firelight, oddly orange, muted as if by glass and framed by the edges of a window.  

Torrent would have loved to have appropriated a tent before he left the hospital, but he had balked at the idea of adding theft on top of desertion.   Besides, it wasn’t as if he could have inconspicuously strolled away with a few square yards of canvas tucked under his arm.   As it was, he’d had to leave behind his second-best trousers and that thick pair of socks with the hole in the toe he’d been meaning to mend.   Nothing but what could fit in his pockets - his leather case of needles in his the pocket of his waistcoat, a thimble and two spools of thread in the overcoat.   The tailor had given up using the right-hand pockets; as a result, the coat hung lower on the left, adding to Torrent’s already lop-sided appearance.   The handkerchief was a last-minute addition; Molly had given it to him and at one time it had borne her monogram.  Torrent had picked loose the threads during the march to Lone Pine in an attempt to reattach a button to his shirt.   The tailor had regretted the necessity almost immediately, and rather hoped Molly wouldn’t ask him what had become of it.

Aside from the mangled handkerchief, the tailor’s clothing was as neat and presentable as three months of enforced idleness could make it.   Torrent’s tenure at the garrison hospital was long enough to allow him to replace nearly all of the items he’d been lacking.   The tailor could boast two shirts, one of navy wool with a turnover collar just beginning to wear thin at the elbows, the other an ivory cassimere hemmed twice at the sleeve, with a tear along the shoulder discreetly repaired with a cross-stitch in grey thread.   The shirt-cuffs were elegantly troublesome; they were meant to fasten with buttons, which out of necessity were forever undone.   A fellow in the hospital had a knack for fastening buttons with his teeth; Torrent had never managed anything better than a spittle-covered shirtsleeve, and soon had given up trying.  The trousers were better, thick and lightly pinstriped, half-covering a pair of leather brogans, nearly new and laced tightly over the ankle.   Completing the ensemble was a thick woolen coat, slate-black, thigh-length and much mended.   

    The coat had been a patchwork affair long before it had been issued to Torrent; at one time it had been thick enough to shrug off the worst of the rain, but the fabric was beginning to fray at the elbows, and the patches at the shoulder seemed to seep water continuously.   Surprisingly, the hospital had cleaned it, and even more surprisingly, returned it after they had done so; Torrent knew the nurses often tore up such castoffs into bandages or blankets.   The tailor had kept it, hoping for a time when he could properly repair it.    The first month Torrent had practiced on a spare bolt of ragcarpet, crudely embroidering a rough sampler with threads picked loose from his bedsheets.   Even holding the cloth in position required a jumble of elbows and straight pins; the stitches were too large, white and ragged against the ragcarpet’s indifferent blue.   More than once, the tailor had caught himself trying to pass the needle from one hand to the other, an experiment which invariably ended with the tailor scrabbling on the floor to find his dropped needle.    Eventually, Torrent decided he might start on the coat.   It took several days to piece together the tattered remnants of the shoulder, carefully patching the slate-black wool with a midnight-black corduroy, the closest match the tailor could find.   The first lines of stitches were sloppy, like a scrawling line of ink running the length of the sleeve.   Nevertheless, it was the first credible repair the tailor had made since the previous summer, and he did not want to tear it out.   Instead, Torrent went over the stitches a second time, and a third, each time willing the stitches to be closer, the thread more even, the knots harder to detect.   On close inspection, the finished repair had the appearance of a scar, thick and rope-like, rough to the touch.    As a last alteration, Torrent sewed the right-hand cuff into its respective pocket, taking care that the empty sleeve hung as elegantly as possible.

It had been a warm day when Torrent had left the hospital, the sunlight rallying to drive off, at least temporarily, the biting chill of the October morning.   Torrent had been sewing a blanket on the verandah; the weather was warm enough that the sanitary board officer’s window had been left open when the garrison captain arrived from Frederickton.   The conversation consisted mostly of names, including Torrent’s own.   The timetable agreed upon was as brief as it was unsettling.  

Torrent finished the blanket and took it inside, stacked and folded it with the others.   He went to his cot in the east wing, collected his little case of needles, and gathered his coat and hat, as though he were considering a stroll in the garden.   A handful of coins went into his pocket, along with a tattered New Testament that he’d found tucked under a mattress in one of the downstairs wards, in which he kept Molly’s photograph, carefully pressed between the flyleaves.  He was halfway down the stairs before he remembered the handkerchief, and dashed back up the stairs to fetch it.   These essentials safely stowed away, the tailor returned to the verandah, walking down the steps and into the garden.   Several hours later, Torrent was half-surprised to discover that he was still walking, his feet having set him on the road to Coriander House at some point in the interval.  

No comments:

Post a Comment