Short Stories · Writing

The Endurance of Wool

Whenever I swore as a young man my grandfather would threaten me with the strangest remarks. Mind your tongue or I’ll wash your mouth out with soap. He was a classic gentleman, that breed which began to grow rarer and rarer as the century declined to a close. He was brought up in humble conditions, sharing a two-up two-down in London with his parents and his five siblings. At fifteen he left school and went to work as an assistant to a clerk with aspirations to become a lawyer. He never became one, but he did learn the value of a well-fitting suit. It was one of the two things on which he most prided himself, and which formed the essential mantra of gentility: manners and appearance.

‘You shan’t be taken seriously if you dress poorly and speak without restraint. Manners and appearance, Thomas.’

He took me to get my first suit when I was eighteen. I would have asked my mother, but she was not the most fashion-conscious person in the world. In any case, once the Valium kicked in she did not know much about anything, so I went with my grandfather. He stood with me whilst my measurements were taken and the garment was tailored, and clapped me on the back when I handed the money over. To his credit, he warned me in advance of the occasion and I had saved up my cash for months beforehand. But he refused to pay for it. Behind manners and appearance, it seemed, was the principle of self-sufficiency.

‘The gentleman should not need to rely on others for assistance, as it is rude to ask for something which one does not deserve.’ I asked him if that would not be better placed beneath the heading of “manners”, then he cuffed me across the ear and that kept me quiet. He was a firm hand, but I think I would have become unruly if it was not for his guidance. There was no one else around to keep me in line. I must admit, a wave of satisfaction rippled through me when I saw myself in the mirror clad in that charcoal grey wool suit, a neat white pocket square peaking from my breast, a rose-red necktie held in place by a modest silver bar. You’re a man now Thomas, my grandfather had announced as he placed a hand on my shoulder. And I truly felt it.

My mother died six months later – an overdose, of course – and I wore that suit to her funeral. My grandfather wore his second best, a near-black pinstripe three-piece with an ultramarine necktie. Sombre enough for the occasion but nevertheless indicative that he was a man of style. I had never been to a funeral before, but my grandfather explained the etiquette at length.

‘As next of kin to the deceased all eyes will be on you. If you must cry, do so calmly and with dignity. Shake men firmly by the hand and women more gently. If appropriate, you may give them a small kiss on the cheek. Thank each one of your guests in turn as they leave, and accept their condolences with humility.’ This was a tall order. News of my mother’s untimely and ignominious end had spread rapidly, and behind the commiserations of my guests was a certain arrogant pity. My maternal aunt was the worst.

‘So sorry about your mother, but I can’t say it came as much of a surprise to us. You know, these kinds of people always end up in a sticky situation.’ The temptation to launch into a tirade of insults was almost irresistible, but I caught my grandfather’s gaze from across the room which cooled my temper.

‘Thank you so much for coming Aunt. Safe journey home.’ She left with her cage suitably rattled by my equanimity, and my grandfather gave me an approving nod. The last of my guests departed and my grandfather and I walked home. Once we arrived he invited me into his study, something that he had never done before. The study, he had always said, belongs only to the man who works in it. He bid me take a seat and loosen my necktie. From a cabinet at the side of the room he produced a bottle of thirty-year-old scotch, which he poured into two crystal glasses and diluted with just a capful of spring water. After handing me a glass, which I cradled in my hands, he stood leaning on his desk staring into the middle distance. Despite his rigid posture and full head of silver hair, the marks of age were showing through for the first time. There was a great melancholy in his eyes, a recognition that a long life was entering its final chapters. And yet, an indefatigable conviction to endure, as best as he could, those last days. Eventually, he raised his glass in salutation of my mother, and of my entry into the world, and we sat drinking for a long time and looking ahead to the future.

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