A spinning wheel in motion was the most incongruous thing you might find in a hospital lobby and it made her look twice. In the foyer of the maternity unit there was a row of small stalls next to the WRVS shop. She dimly recalled noticing adverts for the forthcoming charity craft fair raising money for the pre-term baby unit but it hadn’t really sunk in properly. Given recent events, a few old ladies selling tea cosies and home made jam didn’t seem important and if it hadn’t been for the elegance and compelling motion of the wheel in action she might well have passed on by without a second glance. But she was early and it would be better than sitting yet again in the hospital canteen drinking endless cups of unwanted tea to pass the time.
She turned back. Most of the stalls were much as she’d expected; collections of handcrafted greetings cards, tissue box covers sewn from scraps of damask and velvet to turn a bedroom to a boudoir, and the ubiquitous knitted teddy bears and matinee jackets. Thankfully there wasn’t a jam jar in sight; the nearest equivalent was some rather nicely packaged jars of skin crème and bath salts. She’d delayed approaching the stall with the spinning wheel for reasons she couldn’t quite place; the girl working it seemed as unlikely as the wheel itself. While all the other ladies running the other stalls were the expected granite-haired grannies, this girl looked too young to be out of school. Yet she wielded the wheel with the skill and assurance of a professional. A wicker basket sat on the floor next to the wheel, spilling over with wool ready cared for spinning; she thought at first the wool was yellow but as she looked again she saw it had an odd tinge of old gold to it. It made her think obscurely of high hills and the smell of thyme with the sunshine upon it, and long ago holidays. Where had those holidays been now? All she could remember suddenly was the glory of blue skies and intensely blue seas.
The girl glanced up at her, and let the wheel slow.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
Her voice was deeper than you’d expect from a girl that young; well modulated and ever so slightly unfamiliar, as if she had the trace of an accent that hinted at distant shores left long ago in early childhood. Yet the girl was fair, startlingly so, and with grey eyes.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” the woman asked.
The girl smiled as though she were asked this all the time.
“I’m older than I look,” she said. “Much older. See anything you like?”
She gestured to her stall, which the woman now saw was arranged with the tiniest baby clothes imaginable. They almost looked like doll clothes. As she browsed through them, in wonder, she saw that they were knitted from the same wool the girl was spinning. Spun and knitted, it glowed.
“Is there metal wire in this stuff?” she asked, rather sourly. “Like some of those Indian skirts that are shot through with threads of metal?”
“No,” the girl replied. “That’s the just the way the wool is. No threads of gold, no. That would be scratchy and unpleasant. And these are only for newborns.”
The woman picked up one of the tiny garments, and almost dropped it in surprise.
“It’s so soft,” she said, astonished. “It’s so soft I can scarcely feel it and yet its like velvet. Not like wool at all.”
She held the little jacket in her fingers, stroking the surface.
“It’s the sheep,” said the girl. “The wool comes from a very rare breed. My family brought them over from Greece a long time ago. It’s the softest wool in the world.”
“I’d love a jumper or a cardigan in it,” the woman said, longingly. “Do you do commissions?”
“Sorry,” said the girl. “The wool is very precious and rare and I only make these baby clothes. It’s the best wool in the world for baby clothes.”
The woman still held the jacket and she glanced now at the price tag.
“But this is so cheap!” she exclaimed, in surprise.
The girl shrugged and smiled.
“It is for charity,” she said. “And babies thrive when they wear this wool.”
She turned her attention back to her wheel and the motion made the woman feel softly dizzy, in a nice way, as she watched it. On the main body of the contraption there was a name carved into the shining wood.
“Is that your name?” she asked the girl, pointing to the carving.
“It’s an old Greek name,” the girl replied. “A family name.”
“Clotho doesn’t sound very Greek to me. Are you Greek then? You really don’t look it.”
“We’re an old Greek family, yes. You might even say ancient. But it’s a myth that Greeks must be dark. The original Hellenes were blonde. Both my sisters are fair too.”
The wheel hummed as it turned and the girl’s hands seemed to be turning the fluffy cream clouds of unspun wool into pure gold. The thread spun on the spindle shone in the dull light of the foyer. Balls of it lay ready-wound in another basket at the girl’s feet.
“So what do your sisters do?” the woman asked, as the spinning lulled and calmed her nerves.
“My closest sister, well, you might say she works as a life coach. She helps people sort out their lives. So does my oldest sister. She’s a doctor. A consultant.”
“Do you want to be a doctor when you’ve finished your studies?”
A small, amused smile turned the corners of the girl’s mouth upwards.
“I’m happy with what I do,” she said. “I like working with my hands and what I make helps people.”
The woman turned with jacket indecisively over. Her hands were not work roughened and yet she could scarcely feel the wool at all, and she could feel her hands becoming warmer and softer and almost cocooned. It was a strange feeling. Her mind was still full of the image of the body in an incubator upstairs, more like a shaved starved monkey than a human baby. Today, she knew she would be saying goodbye and yet, in all the rush and terror of the last days, she’d not been able to give this brief, unexpected grandchild a single gift.
“Can I have some bootees as well?” she said, and the girl nodded.
“They’re at the end,” she said. “Put the money in the box. I can’t stop the wheel now or I’ll break the thread. And that’s a thing I try to avoid.”
Taking the bootees and the little jacket, she put money in the box, far more than the prices asked and walked on, tears beginning to prickle at the corners of her eyes.
Upstairs, she saw her daughter first, still terribly ill but starting to recover from the physical distress of the last few days and then went into the room where the incubators stood. The tiny naked body inside was so still she wondered if the baby was already dead. The tubes emerging from the minute body seemed wider than the thread-thin limbs.
“He’s not going to last long,” the nurse said, bluntly. “It’s a matter of time now, I’m afraid. We’ve done all we can. I am so sorry.”
Biting her lip, the woman nodded.
“Then you won’t mind if I dress him,” she said. “I’d like to do that for him at least.”
With the expert assistance of the nurse, the bootees and jacket were put on the baby, who moved softly under their hands. He felt more like a mouse than a baby, she thought.
“Now we wait,” said the nurse. “Your daughter…?”
“Bit better. Conscious but pretty ill.”
They watched in silence. A hand no bigger than a spider twitched out and caught a hold of the jacket. It had seemed ludicrously tiny on the stall but even this dwarfed the baby. The bootees looked like they were meant for a giant, coming up to the knees. The hand began kneading the wool, playing through the soft plush of the surface.
The woman sighed.
“Well, he seems to like it anyway,” she said and the nurse passed her a box of tissues and took a handful herself.
The day passed. And night. And another day. The woman slept at the side of her grandchild’s plastic crib, refusing to go home. She kept vigil, assisting the procession of nurses who turned the baby and cared for his needs, and spent few minutes away keeping her daughter up to date.
“It’s amazing,” she said, as evening fell for a second time. “You won’t believe the difference. He even opened his eyes earlier. His colour’s better. The nurses won’t say it when the doctor is there but it’s a miracle.”
When it was clear the tide had firmly turned, she allowed herself to be persuaded to go home and as she went through the foyer, she noticed the stalls were still there. But the one at the end was gone. The trestle table remained but was bare. The old lady running the stall next to it looked up.
“Where did the girl with the spinning wheel go?” the woman asked.
“Well, she sold everything and has gone,” the old lady replied. “ Raised a whole load of money; more than any of us I think. Funny child she was too. Talented. I don’t know anyone of that generation who can knit at all, let alone as well as that lassie did. Though she spun the whole day she was with us. Never saw her knit. She was spinning even when we all packed up and left for the night too. Oh, she said to say to you, if you came back, that she didn’t let the thread break. Like I said, funny child.”
“Thank you,” said the woman. The empty table looked strange. Bare and blank like a fresh piece of paper. Or a new life. A faint gleam caught her eye; on the floor next to the table was a single snippet of the wool the girl had been spinning. She picked it up and held it. The wool felt as warm as if it had been spun seconds ago, and as soft as thistledown. The hint of gold needed the sun now to make it shine, and going out into the gloomy November day, she felt the sun was shining inside her heart and the thread too would always shine when she remembered. Tucking the relic in her purse, she went to the car and drove home, exhausted but ecstatically thankful.