They had pancakes for breakfast, and were soon out of the house to fulfil the day’s itinerary. She would rather have rested at home, and she thought the feeling was probably mutual, but she knew that her friend was trying to be a good host, and take her to see all the sights, so she pretended to be excited. She was quite interested in the sights, too, but circling in the back of her mind was the strange incident of the missing pattern, the appearance of the antimacassar, and the trail of wool, which had vanished so quickly and silently.
Over lunch, she decided to give vent to her curiosity.
“Who was Elsie Witherell?” she asked offhandedly.
“Oh, just my grandma,” replied her friend, and added warily, “why do you ask?”
“Her name was in a book in my room.”
She couldn’t think what else to ask, and then it began to rain, and they had to grab their pasties and run indoors, so the subject was forgotten.
That night was the last of her stay in the country, so she wanted to make an effort not to retire to bed early, even though all the unaccustomed outdoor activity had made her very tired. When they returned to the house she went up to her bedroom to change. The weather had been so foul that she’d had to borrow a jacket – her own wasn’t really fit for tramping across windswept fields. Nevertheless, all her clothes were soggy, especially her trousers. She left everything in a heap on the floor, towelled her drooping hair, and dressed in the only dry, unmuddy piece of clothing she had left: a floral dress she had brought in case she needed something a little less casual. Unfortunately, she hadn’t counted on the house being so cold. She was used to blazing central heating in her little city flat, and this house was distinctly draughty. Standing by the armchair, she could feel a chilling current entering the room through the gaps around the sash window. The cardigan she had worn in the morning was clammy with damp and cold, but she considered wearing it anyway, since the dress was too thin. Then, just as the night before, she suddenly became aware of what was draped across the back of the armchair. She gasped. It was the shawl she had seen on Ravelry the night before! A hundred ridiculous thoughts materialised in her mind: she was being watched, she had a stalker on Ravelry, her friend had secretly knit her a shawl or had someone knit a shawl for her, or, most ridiculous of all, she had knit a shawl in her sleep. True, she had been a somnambulist, but since she quit her old job she hadn’t been so stressed, and she was sure she hadn’t sleepwalked in years.
Dispelling these unwelcome thoughts, she pulled the shawl tightly around her, lifting her shoulders and snuggling. It was soft and thick, like a blanket, and it went beautifully with her dress. Animated by the thought of feeling warm for the first time since she’d arrived, she stepped downstairs to help her friend prepare tea.
They had a beautiful evening, one she wouldn’t soon forget. Midway through their meal the electricity went out, and her friend had to search the house in darkness for a candle. They amused themselves by making up endings to the film they’d been watching. She’d been trying to act brave, but she was hopeless with horror films, and had silently thanked providence when it flicked off. Her friend had been quite put out, but it had worked out alright in the end.
Back in her room, she sat for a while, idly twirling the fringe of the mystery shawl around her fingers. Her friend had made no remark, or shown any sign of recognition on seeing the shawl, even when she’d prompted.
“The house is quite chilly, isn’t it? I suppose you’re used to it, but I’m glad I found this shawl in my bedroom,”
“Yes, it isn’t very well insulated. Here, come and warm your hands,” he said, flipping open a hot plate on top of the aga.
She smiled, thinking about the evening. She longed to check Ravelry for the shawl pattern once again, to see if by some strange chance someone had added her shawl as a project, but without electricity the wi-fi was down. Reluctantly she got up, picked up her washbag and went out into the hall. She flicked the light switch, once again forgetting that the power was still out. Then the strangest thing happened. The wallpaper wavered in the warm orange glow of a candle. She looked down the hall and saw a slight figure, dressed in white robes, holding an old-fashioned candlestick. She couldn’t see the figure’s face behind the brightness of the flame, but it lifted one finger to where its lips must be and in the softest tones breathed, “shh, you haven’t seen me.” Then the figure and the light vanished in the stairwell. She let out a strangled cry, for which she was later quite embarrassed, and rushed into her friend’s room without even knocking. He was standing in the middle of the bedroom with only his boxers on, a toothbrush in one hand and a paperback novel in the other.
“Hullo,” he said, a frothy grin spreading across his face when he saw her.
“I… I just…” she stammered, flushing and gesturing incoherently.
“Something the matter?”
“I just… I… I thought I saw someone.”
The grin disappeared, and a look of worry replaced it. He strode to the sink and spat, “oh you did, did you?”
“Yes. And yesterday there was this trail of yarn in my room, and then I found this shawl,” She was still wearing the shawl wrapped around her neck.
He sighed, “I’m sorry, I probably should have told you. I just thought it might be… awkward. It was my grandmother you saw, up to her midnight tricks again.”
Her eyes widened.
“Come on, you’d better meet her.”
He took her by the hand and led her upstairs to the attic. “Grandma,” he called at the door.
“Come in,” whispered a little voice.
They walked inside. The attic, which was directly above her own room, was the cosiest nook that she had ever seen in her life. It was far warmer than the rest of the house – probably because the ceiling was so low – and every inch was covered in soft draperies. A thick pile carpet lined the floor, two armchairs piled with cushions and throws were arranged either side of a little woodburner on which a hot water bottle lay warming in its knitted cover. And the bed was decked in an amazing quilt – made up of innumerable tiny puffy hexagons.
Her friend’s Grandmother was dressed in a white dressing gown, and was chewing on something crunchy.
“Oh, hello dear,” she said when she saw her, then turning to her Grandson, “I am sorry. I’m such a goose. I thought everyone was in bed and I could just sneak down for a few hobnobs. I gave the game away, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did rather, Grandma,”
She looked guilty. “Care for a hobnob?”
“Really, don’t worry about it,” she assured him for the hundredth time, “I loved her, she was the sweetest Grandmother ever. And I can’t tell you how much I adore this shawl.” she stroked the shawl around her neck. They were standing in the small railway station, huddled close to keep warm. Elsie had confessed to having knit the shawl for her, and when she asked why she had chosen this pattern, she explained: “Well, first I saw the pages of the needlework book on the bed and I really fancied trying that counterpane pattern. I’m sure I once made a blanket like that, but goodness knows where it went. Anyway, I knit the square and put it on the armchair, but I really wasn’t sure it looked right. And then I saw the sketch of that shawl you’d made on the pad on the bedside table, you know, with the square in the middle and the three triangles around it. I’m sorry, you must think me awful for popping in and out of your room all the time, but you see while it was empty I was using that room as a sewing and knitting room, and I didn’t have space up here for all my bits and bobs, so I put them all in the wardrobe – you’re welcome to anything in there, by the way -”
“Ah, so that’s how that trail of yarn came to be there!”
“Oh dear, did you see that too. You must have thought this a very strange house,” Elsie had chuckled. “The end of a ball must have got snagged on something and I walked all the way up before I noticed I was trailing yarn all over the house. Luckily it came loose when I gave it a good tug, but I was winding it up for quite a while! Well, anyway, when I saw your sketch I saw what a nice idea it would be to turn that antimacassar into a shawl, so I did a quick search on Ravelry -”
“You’re on Ravelry!” she interrupted.
“Well yes, of course, my dear. Everyone’s on Ravelry now,” replied Elsie matter-of-factly, “anyway, I did a search on Ravelry and up popped the pattern! It was so quick to knit, I thought I’d finish it off so you could wear it – I know that room gets so draughty, that’s why I moved up here – and you wouldn’t need to know how it had got there and my dear Grandson wouldn’t have to confess to living with his old, silly, knitting Grandmother.”
So there was the mystery, all unravelled.
“You know, I think he rather fancies you,” she added with a cheeky wink, and nibbled at a hobnob.
He did rather fancy her. “Promise me you’ll come back again. Soon,” he begged.
“Of course,” she assured him, and they rubbed their cold noses together in an Eskimo kiss.
On the train journey home, she thought pleasantly of him, and his Grandmother, and as the beautiful countryside flew by, she cast on 8 stitches and began knitting around.
Thank you for reading this unexpectedly long tale. I hope it did a little more than amuse. You may blame NaNoWriMo for filling my head with stories. If only I could count this towards my 50,000! The sullen, ghostly photos are not my usual style, I know, but the weather demanded them. Enjoy knitting the shawl and feel free to critique my writing in the comments below. ;)
Small & Large
‣ Approx. 600m / 656yds [800m / 875yds] of aran- weight (worsted) yarn held double (including yarn needed for fringe).
‣ or approx. 350m / 383yds [465m / 509yds] of super bulky yarn. (Remember that if you use super bulky yarn, your fringe will also be chunkier).
‣ 12mm (US 17) 80cm / 32in long circular needles.
‣ 6 sts / 7 rows over lace stitch (used in wings).
‣ Gauge isn’t critical, but it will affect the final size and yardage of the shawl.
‣ Make sure the lace looks open and clear.
‣ Central square will be approx. 44 cm / 17  in wide.
‣ Finished wingspan (discluding fringe) will be approx. 170 cm / 67 in, and height, 66  cm / 26 in.
‣ Stitch marker,
‣ Crochet hook,
‣ Tapestry needle for weaving in ends.
Thank you (once again) to my marvelous test-knitters: Abby, Anni, Chooi Wah, Heather, Julianne, and Mary. And of course my lovely eagle-eyed tech editor Akshata Dhareshwar!
Suggested accompaniment to your knitting
The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton is a period film about the life of Isabella Beeton, starring Anna Madeley and J.J. Feild. If you know as little about her life as I did, I think you’ll enjoy this film, although it doesn’t make the most cheerful viewing.
Also, this Guardian Books podcast briefly discusses Mrs. Beeton – I hardly ever cook or bake these days, but it might interest any foodie knitters out there.