Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Last Inch

Category: Short Story

Words @ about 600

The Last Inch

Jean Rae was one-hundred and twenty, so she said. I didn’t believe her, although she was undoubtedly old. Scalp showed through her thin silver hair. Skin, yellow as pages of an old book sagged in folds around her mouth. She wore thick stockings, and maroon, pleated skirts with matching jumpers. Alone in her old-fashioned house she sat by a window and knitted long thin scarves. She liked red wool best. Her knitting drifted from the needles, snaked to the floor, and lay about her feet like crimson entrails. Every week I brought her fresh wool and picked up the scarves.

I’m a volunteer for Oxfam, and our team are always grateful for donations. Every Saturday I price each scarf and hang it on the shop rail. and I am always pleased to see they have all been sold by following week.

Some days Jean Rae looked tired, her face drawn, her knuckles swollen pink and lumpy under thin skin, and I’d feel guilty, afraid she was doing all this work to please me.

‘Give knitting a rest, your hands look sore.’ I said

‘Of course they’re sore, Wendy, I’ve arthritis. Besides everything aches at my age.’ She scowls over the top of her spectacles.

‘Why don’t you take one of the pain-killers I brought you? Look - you haven’t even opened the bottle.’

‘I don’t believe in pills - I’ll leave the pill popping to your generation.’ Her lips tightened.

‘Well why not watch the television, or read for a change?’ I gathered her scarves and pushed them into a carrier bag.

A worried look crossed her face, and the needles flew, click-clacking under her thin fingers. ‘I haven’t time to stop. Knitting is what keeps me alive. Don’t forget my wool next week. Red, I want red.’

I nodded an affirmative.  Don’t forget the wool - I want red - we had the same conversation each time I called.

‘I’ll see you Saturday, then?’ I replied

‘Can’t you come in the week? I’ll be out of wool by Saturday.’ She peered at me - her face sour like she’d just eaten a sharp pickle.

‘I’m busy, Jean Rae. My grandchildren are staying with me during the school break.’

She gave a loud sniff and turned her face away.


The following week I was late. I’d ventured onto the snow covered street, slipped on the ice, and twisted my ankle. Gritting my teeth I hobbled into town for wool - I knew she would be waiting. I let myself through the front door. Voices came from the living room - she had a visitor.

‘Hi, Jean Rae,’ I called. ‘Sorry to interrupt.  I’ve brought your wool. Sorry I’m so late I fell…’

Jean Rae was sitting by the window – the voices I’d heard were coming from a radio at her side. She didn’t look around or answer and I felt a stab of irritation. I was in pain, and I wasn’t her paid carer. Barking out orders like an army officer, she acted as if I should always be at her beck and call. I limped across the room to confront her. She was staring into her lap. I put out my hand, touched her cheek, and felt the chill of death.
On the table beside her, the empty bottle of pills lay like a rebuke. Around her feet a pile of knitted scarves were a bright stain on the carpet. Knitting needles were clasped tight in still hands, and protruding from the last stitch was the final inch of wool.