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3,693 miles of stitches

by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/339475.html)

When Sophie waved her new husband off to war she was wearing her favourite cotton day dress, pale blue with garlands of white and pink posies printed on it. All the other women were in their Sunday finest, but Sophie knew Frank liked her best like this, maybe with her sleeves rolled up while she washed the dishes and he dried, or as she ironed his shirts and he snuggled up behind her and kissed her where the damp hairs clung to the back of her neck…

That led to memories too indecent to indulge in on a railway platform surrounded by everyone she knew, and she could tell it put a sparkle in the way she looked at Frank. Not everyone saw Frank the way she did, with all his freckles–and those ears!–and she’d once overheard another girl make an unkind remark about how their poor children would look. But he was so handsome and brave in his khakis, it was all she could do to keep her hand on his arm and not slide it up to his shoulder and press in against him as though they were dancing alone to his hummed tune in their tiny sitting room with only one kerosene lantern for light.

Frank’s gaze heated; he leaned close. It might have looked to everyone around them as though he were giving her a last private message, but there were no words, only his warmth on the sensitive curve of her ear. When he drew back, she gave him a reproachful look, and he grinned; he knew what breath on her ear did to her.

He turned to Albert, who had been waiting with eyes on everyone but them. “Look in on my girl every now and then, won’t you?”

Albert constructed a smile that looked as though it took effort. He’d been even more subdued than usual since the two of them had gone into the city to enlist and only one of them had come back in khaki. “Of course.”

The blast of the train whistle made them all jump. “It looks like I’m off,” Frank said, and squeezed her tight.

“Come back soon,” Sophie said, her breath choking off unexpectedly on the last word.

“By Christmas,” he assured her. “It may even be over by the time we get there. And I’ll have had a nice trip abroad on Canada’s dime!”

“I hope you’re right,” Albert said.

“Don’t worry so!” Frank gave him a quick slap on the back and jogged off down the platform as though joining chums for a picnic.

With the crush of people, Sophie was certain Frank couldn’t have seen her lace-edged handkerchief among so many, but she waved it until the caboose of the train was out of sight.

“May I see you home?” Albert asked, as the crowd around them breathed out a common sigh.

“You needn’t.”

“I’d like to.” He offered her his elbow, and along with the rest of the village they jostled off the platform.

One thing she appreciated about her husband’s dearest friend, Sophie thought as they walked, was that he didn’t force conversation on one. She didn’t feel up to being lively; her throat kept closing in the oddest way.

At her front gate, he looked at her soberly. “You must feel absolutely able to call on me if you should need anything.”

“That’s very kind of you.” She couldn’t face asking him in for tea, and Albert didn’t hover as though he were expecting her to. He tipped his hat and walked off. Sophie let herself into her small grey house. She took off her hat and put the kettle on and had a little cry, and when she was done she went into the sitting room and picked up her knitting.

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Socks (pair)

Khaki wool, hand-knitted, irregular purl pattern underneath turn-down cuff

Very worn

1914

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.01a, b

.-.-.

The tiny house seemed so stale without Frank in it. Before, even when he was out working at the cannery office, the knowledge that he would soon be sweeping in the door kept a tingle in the air, made her smile over her dishwashing and dusting. She’d have supper on the table and a lantern in the window, and he’d bring her bouquets of Queen Anne’s lace and buttercups for her to arrange in the blue liniment bottle to decorate the table between them, both of them making comfort and beauty for each other with what little they had. Now it was just so much numb, silent space.

Three weeks after Frank had gone, Sophie got a visit from her aunt. She was a week late, not surprising with all the excitement and worry. She’d been wondering, the last few days, whether it might not come at all, whether they might become a real family, the way they’d dreamed of. What wonderful news to welcome Frank back with! But she felt the familiar twinge as she was readying breakfast, and she spent the day curled up on the chesterfield with a hot water bottle against her cramping abdomen, half-dozing, trying to dream of Frank’s hands rubbing her lower back and stroking her hair.

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Socks (pair)

Olive wool, hand-knitted, irregular purl pattern on band of stocking stitch between two bands of ribbing at cuff

Large holes in both toes, run in left calf

1914

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.02a, b

.-.-

Mrs. Douglas invited all interested ladies to a meeting in the Methodist church hall. There were tea and iced cakes, and much talk of patriotism and noble self-sacrifice, and plans for bazaars and sewing bees and prayer circles. Mrs. Maxwell suggested that if the war did last until Christmas–there was general protest at that–but if it did, she persisted, our brave boys might need warm clothing over there in who-knew-what kind of weather in foreign countries, and who would supply it if not their mothers and sisters? Some of the younger girls confessed that they had never knitted a thing, and at that a few of the matrons had things to say about the younger generation, which had grown up self-indulged and flighty, thinking of nothing but dancing and novels, not like when they were girls.

Sophie had always knitted and sewn; Great-Aunt Una had not believed in idleness. Her first gift to Frank had been a pair of socks in fine German wool with purl clocks, and he had declared them the most delightful pair he had ever worn. She had knitted all his socks in the two years since. With him so far away, who would darn them now?

On her way home from the meeting, Sophie stopped into Klassen’s. Albert was measuring out crackers into a brown paper bag balanced on the wide scoop of the scale. The broad woman in the smart belted coat was making noises of protest as she watched, and he said, “This is in addition to your pound of plain crackers, Mrs. Polley. I’m giving you two ounces of oyster crackers at no charge as a thanks for being one of our most loyal and valued customers.”

It always amused Sophie how Albert could be so expansive in the store when describing the virtues of different kinds of baking powder or pen nibs, and so rigidly tongue-tied when asking a woman to dance or choosing a slice of pie at a church supper. Even in the warm shelter of their sitting room, he preferred to listen while Frank told ridiculous stories about the goings-on at the cannery and she related her garden successes and housekeeping adventures. It must be difficult, she thought, for such a shy man to be so handsome. Sophie knew for a fact that at least three of the girls in the village had set their cap for Albert, and Mrs. Polley wasn’t the only matron who pinked pleasingly when Albert gave them a smile along with their parcels, but she had never known him to even walk a girl home from a party.

Mrs. Polley moved on, and Sophie stepped up to the counter and pushed her short shopping list towards him.

“Mrs. Muirhead,” he greeted her. “May I offer you an oyster cracker?” He shook a few from the measuring scoop into her cupped glove, and she crunched down while he cast an eye over her piece of paper. “Will tomorrow suit for a delivery?”

“That will be fine.” She could almost carry it all home herself; groceries for one person were an absurdly small amount.

“Was there anything else…” He followed her gaze to an upper shelf.

“Do you have any khaki wool suitable for socks?”

He pulled the wheeled ladder down the aisle behind the counter, and brought down two cardboard boxes. She sorted through the offerings; no browns at all, but there were three skeins of a fine olive green.

“You’re the third lady to ask today,” Albert said.

If she’d been knitting in any usual autumn, Sophie would have decorated olive socks with red diamonds or yellow stripes, but who knew what rules Frank had to follow now? “Will you wrap them for me to take with me?”

As he was placing the skeins into a bag, Albert asked, “Have you had a letter from him?”

“Yes, several.” She had kept every letter Frank had ever sent her, and these would join those in the bottom of her silk-lined sewing box, when she was no longer opening them six times a day and smiling over the silly little sketches of a big-eared, large-knuckled Frank tripping over his rifle and blissfully inhaling the steam from his tin coffee mug. “Have you?”

“Two. He seems…”

“He puts a good face on things.”

“Yes, he does.” He handed her the bag. “You know that…” He bit his lip. “I would be there beside him if they’d taken me. I wouldn’t have let him go alone.”

“I know,” Sophie said, and Albert gave her that painful smile.

On her way home she stopped at Hyland’s, which was a butcher’s and greengrocer’s both, and then at the bakery for one loaf of bread. She cooked herself a nice chop and glazed carrots and mashed potatoes for supper, and ate them in all of fifteen minutes; with no one to rehash her day with or help with the dishes, it was hardly worth the effort.

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Gloves (pair)

Dark green wool with striped green and red rib cuffs, hand-knitted. Sewn running stitches of irregular size in orange yarn on inside of both cuffs

Holes in right thumb and right index finger

1914

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.03a, b

.-.-.

Everyone knew now that the war would not be over by Christmas. At the beginning of December, Sophie packed Frank a box of comforts: tea, chocolate, a bag of mixed fruit rock and another of peppermints, a pocket notebook and pencil. She sent him half the brick of the fruitcake she’d made earlier in the summer, wrapped in four layers of oiled paper, and a pair of green gloves with gay red stripes on the cuffs to eke out the last of the skein. She didn’t know if he’d have it in time for Christmas. For all she knew, he was on the ocean now; he hadn’t known when they’d be leaving, and he couldn’t have told her if he had.

Sophie spent her own Christmas in her kitchen, which was the only room in the house she kept a fire in now. Frank had arranged to have most of his pay sent directly to her, but it still wasn’t what he’d been bringing home from the cannery, and she had to economize. She dragged her sitting-room chair into the corner between the back door and the stove, and knit and thought Christmas carols in her head. Dinner was a roasted chicken–they’d never been able to afford a goose–and potatoes and buttered cabbage, and maybe a little too much rum-soaked fruitcake. She meant to read all Frank’s letters over from the start, as a treat, but halfway through them the melancholy and the rum overwhelmed her, and she retired early to her chilly and vacant bed.

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Socks (pair)

Olive wool, hand-knitted. Heart in purl stitches on sole of right foot. Irregular purl pattern on sole of left foot

Left leg torn away, dark stain on edges

1914

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.04a, b

.-.-.

Winter was a frozen block of Red Cross meetings and handiwork socials, where she rolled bandages and hemmed sheets and knit, always knit. With so little housekeeping to do, Sophie could finish a plain sock in a day, and start on the second in the evening if her wrists didn’t ache too badly. The Red Cross began to supply yarn in the colours the army wanted most, but for the things she sent to Frank, she had Albert order finer, softer stuff.

One day in the butcher’s, she asked for two sausages instead of one. Strange how habit sometimes blindsided her; she’d thought she’d gotten used to cooking only for herself, but, distracted by trying to remember how much lard she had left at home, she’d let her Tuesday order of a year ago pop out of her mouth. Too embarrassed to correct herself, she let Mr. Plumtree wrap the sausages up, handed over her twenty cents–it was shocking how dear things were getting–and escaped with the parcel in her basket.

She had to pass Klassen’s again on her way home, and although she’d already bought tooth powder and envelopes there earlier, she stopped under the striped awning and looked in thoughtfully. The store was empty except for Albert, in his white apron, stocking one of the shelves behind the counter with tinned soups, turning all the labels so the tomatoes made a cheerful red line. The extra sausage would keep for several days in the unheated back porch–but–

The bell above the door clanged as Sophie entered, and Albert turned, dusting his hands on his apron.

“Albert,” Sophie said, “would you like to come to supper tonight?”

Albert had been diligent about attending to her, walking her home from church and fundraising concerts, shovelling her front walkway when it snowed. But since her husband had stepped on that train, he’d deflected every invitation to come into her home.

“It’s sausages,” she tempted him, “and I’ll make scalloped potatoes.” Albert roomed alone above the store. Her cooking, though plain, had to be better than a can of cold sardines, or soup heated on the little parlour stove in Klassen’s office.

Albert evaded her eyes. “I don’t know that I should.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not…respectable, with you living alone. People may talk.”

“Oh, Albert, I don’t care about that.” She’d never been good at being a respectable girl. “I miss Frank, and I know you must too. And if people want to be nasty gossips about an old friend of my husband’s coming to dinner while he’s away answering the call of his country, they can–go hang.”

Albert’s face softened, not quite a smile. “Mr. Klassen’s just stepped into his office. Let me ask him if I may take a longer supper than usual.”

He disappeared through the doorway at the back of the U formed by the counters. Sophie looked up at the yarn shelf, where there was nothing but some forlorn skeins of yellow and purple, and thought about how she might knit a pattern into a ribbed helmet, with a nice long neck to keep the cold drafts away.

Albert emerged from the back of the store. “He says I may take the entire evening if I like.”

“Oh, that’s nice of him. Please thank him for me.”

He made a quick gesture, half headshake, half shrug. “We aren’t as busy these days.”

Sophie had heard some women declare they would not patronize a business owned by a German, and complain about Howard’s, which was smaller and dirtier and not as well stocked. “You’ll always have my business.”

“I’ll be sure to tell him that. Thank you.”

“I’ll expect you at six,” Sophie said, and took herself off to see what Hyland’s had by way of vegetables.

She laid a fire in the sitting room stove in Albert’s honour, and lit a second lantern, and had the sausages browning when he knocked on the front door at one minute past the hour. Before, he’d come to the kitchen door, like family. But she let him in and took his coat, and they ate supper sitting across from one another at the kitchen table.

Frank had always been the one to keep the talk between the three of them going, peppering his stories about the cannery with important village news of births, love affairs, illnesses and quarrels that he’d heard due to his knowing and charming everyone. Without him, conversation kept stuttering into silence. There wasn’t much to say about her days, somehow less interesting when Frank wasn’t here to praise her gingerbread cake or ask about the dress she was making over for herself.

“Listen to me go on,” she faltered, as her account of the latest Red Cross meeting petered out.

Albert blinked at her. “But I like to hear you talk.” He placed his knife and fork tidily in a pair across his empty plate. “You and Frank both. He sees the funny side of everything, and you make ordinary things sound so interesting.”

He was just being kind, she knew, but she couldn’t help feeling warmed that he would go to the trouble.

As she took away his plate and brought the apple cake to the table, she asked, “When was the last time you heard from him?”

“A week ago.”

“I had a letter from him yesterday. Let me get it and I’ll read it to you.”

And by the time she had read halfway through Frank’s account of bivouacking in the cellar of a ruined house in six inches of water, and how they’d managed to rig a fire in an old iron stewing kettle and make themselves tea despite everything, they were as comfortable together as if he were right there with them.

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Helmet with attached chest and back protectors

Grey wool, hand-knitted. Sewn running stitches of irregular size in purple yarn on inside of front flap

1915

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.05

.-.-.

During the day, Sophie missed Frank’s laugh, the way he smoothed back her hair, his skill at making the sitting room chimney draw properly, the little notes he left for her to find as she made herself a cup of tea or dusted the knickknacks on the sitting room mantel. At night, she missed him viscerally. Sometimes she woke with the pulse of her heart between her legs matching the hammering in her chest, on the cusp of a release she could never quite achieve just by dreaming, and reached down to finish herself with her hand before she plunged back into sleep. On the very bad days, she wrapped herself around his pillow, which no longer smelled of him although she hadn’t washed the case since he’d gone, and let hot tears leak out of her eyes, because what was the point of being brave when there was no one else here to know?

News began to filter home of Ypres, and Sophie’s blood turned to ground glass in her veins every time she heard the rattle of the mail slot. She couldn’t muster the courage to read the casualty lists, although every time Albert saw her, whether it was in the store or coming to spend the evening with her or just stopping by in the morning to bring her his copy of the paper she couldn’t afford to subscribe to, he assured her that Frank was not on them today. She hated that a letter from her husband made her hand shake–would it be the last he’d ever written?–but she wasn’t the only one in the village who had come to fear any envelope addressed in an unfamiliar hand. Mrs. Richardson’s boy Sammy had been gassed, and Henry Lapointe had had a shell explode right next to him, and both Marshall boys were missing in action.

Frank came through it with nothing, he wrote, but an intriguing scar. He’d taken some shrapnel in the left calf, but, he promised her, the nurses there were capital, and it didn’t trouble him a bit. He was back at the front within a week.

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Scarf

Khaki wool, hand-knitted. Overall knit and purl pattern

1915

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.06

.-.-.

So many of the men had joined up that the cannery went begging for workers. Sophie spent four summer months on the line, tedious work that she had hoped, upon her marriage, never to have to go back to, but everyone must do their part, and she was glad of the pay. She rented out her spare room to a girl from Toronto who had come up for the same reason, but the girl suffered terribly from homesickness and left within a month. Oddly, Sophie was relieved at having the house to herself again; the girl’s presence had only underlined who wasn’t there.

She and Albert had Christmas dinner together, with mock turtle soup and chicken and buttered parsnips and a mince pie just large enough for the two of them. Sophie set a spare place at the table, and they sloshed a tiny bit of their after-dinner tipple into Frank’s glass.

One night in February, Sophie woke with a jolt to a loud banging close by. She threw on her wrap and hurried downstairs. One of the men who worked at the station was pounding on her neighbours’ door, which opened as she watched. The man had a short and excited conversation with Mr. Murray. Folding her arms against the snow-scented chill, Sophie cast a glance around the neighbourhood, where windows and doors were cracking open but nothing seemed out of place. Then the wind changed, and she caught the odor of smoke.

“Sorry to have wakened you, ma’am,” the man called to her across the small verandah. “The fire department’s being called out. There’s a fire at Klassen’s store.”

It was a cloudless January night and the day before had been so bitter that the water in the jug on her washstand had had a rime of ice on the top, but what Sophie remembered about that night later was not cold, but heat. By the time she reached the store it was nothing but flames, a shadow of beams and joists visible through the brightness if she looked out of the corner of her eye. The bucket brigade was throwing what snow they could gather from the ground onto nearby buildings, where it dripped and steamed; there was no water, because the pump by the Presbyterian church, which everyone in the village used to water their horses, had been frozen solid for days.

Mr. Klassen stood in the road, hand over his mouth, whispering to himself in German–prayers or curses, Sophie didn’t know. Urgency jittering in her chest, she swept her eyes again and again over the crowd. She had to slit her eyes against the fierce firelight as if it were noon.

She found Albert on the ground beside the bank building opposite the store, Dr. MacKellan beside him with a hand on his back. Albert’s winter coat was half-buttoned over his nightshirt, galoshes flapping open around his pale, naked shins. He sat as though he’d fallen. His face and neck and the striped white front of his nightshirt were coated with soot. His chest was heaving as though he’d just been rescued from drowning, and she could hear the terrible wheeze even over the roar of the fire, as though he were breathing through layers of damp cloth. His eyes were wide and white and frantic in his blackened face.

Sophie crouched and laid a hand on his arm. “Albert,” she said, so relieved that she couldn’t find any other words. Albert clutched at her hands so hard that later she would find faint purple smudges where his fingers had been.

“He needs to be somewhere warm and clean,” the doctor said, with a grim set to his mouth.

“I have a place for him,” Sophie said.

.-.-

Chest protector

Light blue wool, hand-knitted. Overall basketweave pattern

1916

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Albert Foster, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.07

.-.-.

Frank spent over a month of the spring of 1916 in the general military hospital in Etaples, recuperating from pneumonia. The most wonderful thing of all, he wrote, was having dry feet. That sent Sophie back to her needles with redoubled dedication.

One May evening, Albert said, “Do you think I could learn to do that?”

Sophie looked up from counting stitches. “To knit?”

He nodded. “Even the schoolboys are doing it, I’ve been told. I may as well not be completely useless.”

For a week after the fire, Albert had lain in bed, propped up on all the sitting room pillows, coughing up black phlegm. Even now, he went ashen and had to sit down when he climbed the stairs too quickly. She woke sometimes to hear him through the thin wall, fighting for breath. His asthma had always, Frank had said, bothered him most at night. He still could only work half a day at his new job at Solomon’s Hardware before he had to come home and rest.

“We can all do a part,” Sophie said, a little sharply; she didn’t like hearing him say things like that about himself.

He squeezed out a smile. “You’re right, of course, Sophie. Teach me to knit a sock our fighting men can be proud to wear.”

“We’ll start you on a muffler, first,” she said, and fished in her knitting basket for a pair of her smoothest needles and the softest of the yarn.

.-.-

Seaman’s scarf

Dark green, hand-knitted. Garter stitch with central rib section

1916

Knit by Albert Foster and Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.08

.-.-.

Sophie wasn’t sure how it happened. She was always careful with knives. But the Hubbard squash was large and tough, and she had to hack at it more forcefully than she liked, and the cutting board slipped on the table. She felt the impact before she felt the pain, and then a shiver went up her back like an ice block being dragged along her spine and the pain hit her like a firebrand laid along her palm. Sophie dropped the knife and stared at her hand as everything in front of and behind her eyes went crimson. “Frank! Frank!” she cried out in a panic.

But it was Albert, of course, who came barrelling down the stairs and stopped, white-faced, as Sophie’s blood trickled onto the kitchen linoleum.

“Sit,” he commanded. She couldn’t move. He grabbed the damp teatowel hanging over the stove and closed her fist around it, and guided her to a chair. He put his hands over her fist, keeping it closed, and sat on the kitchen table, gasping to breathe, as the towel soaked through.

Colm Murray from next door, who was twelve, ran over to the doctor’s and fetched him. “This will need to be sewn closed,” Dr. MacKellan said, after he’d uncurled her hand and dabbed the congealing blood away from the gash that crossed her palm and fourth finger. “I need this ring out of the way. I’m afraid it’s not going to be pleasant. Please look away, Mrs. Muirhead.” He put his fingers around her wedding ring like pair of bony pliers.

Sophie had been able to clench her teeth against his prodding, but something welled up in her at that. “Don’t,” she said, and sobs burst out of her, as if they were an invading force she had no influence over.

“Sophie,” Albert said, crouched at her side. He took her good hand, his own still sticky with her blood. “I know you can be brave. Squeeze my hand as tightly as you like.”

Sophie shook her head. Albert was a pale blur through her tears. “I haven’t–taken it off–since Frank–went away.”

The doctor withdrew, looking abashed. Albert cradled Sophie’s hand.

“Frank will understand. We’ll just slip it off and put it on your other hand, quick as that. We’ll do it together. All right?”

Sophie nodded, and gritted her teeth, and held her breath until her wedding ring slid into the mirror of its rightful place.

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Trench cap

Hand-knitted, lined. Exterior dark grey rib; interior kelly green and ecru in irregular pattern

1916

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.09

.-.-.

The third Christmas Frank was away, Sophie and Albert packed his box together, and had more fun, they both agreed, finding and making little treasures to fill it up than they would have had spending their money on gifts for each other. Their toast went dry and their tea unsweetened for a month, and Sophie used a pound of butter and half a pound of sugar to make shortbread, most of which went to Frank and the smaller portion of which was their Christmas dessert. Dinner was another roasted chicken, with a little sherry in the gravy.

One evening, Sophie came into the sitting room and surprised Albert at her knitting basket, the cap she was making for Frank stretched between his hands. He jumped when he saw her. She watched as a blush spread like a tide up across his fair skin and into his hairline.

“I’m–sorry, I–I wanted to see how you did the crown–I didn’t mean–” He swallowed, looking anywhere but at her. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

She felt her own face warm. “I know you didn’t.”

“I know that–things between–married people–it’s not your fault–you have every right–” If he got any redder, she thought, his hair would catch fire.

“How do you know Morse code?” To think that she’d sat here with him so many evenings, knitting such things into Frank’s sock cuffs and mufflers, when what she’d thought was secret was as plain to him as an open book as soon as he looked closely enough!

At the thought, the warmth in her face, unexpectedly, washed lower down.

“The first job I had after we left the Boys’ Home was with a telegraph office. I taught it to Frank.”

“He taught it to me. Some of the girls at the boarding house liked to go through your things when you weren’t there.” Sophie crossed the room and took the cap from Albert’s nerveless fingers. “Don’t be too shocked at me.”

“I could never be too shocked at you.” He swallowed. He was still red, but, she couldn’t help noticing, probably not from shame any more.

“I was going to make a pot of tea,” Sophie said briskly, “so I think I shall, and then we’ll sit down together and you can show me where you’re having trouble with your knitting.”

.-.-

Knee warmer with extended lower leg

Khaki wool, hand-knitted. Heart-shaped cable knitted into centre of kneecap

1917

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.10

.-.-.

The spring was Vimy and the autumn Passchendaele, Ypres all over again. Sophie had a haunting dream of Frank marching in circles in churned mud, gaining nothing, going nowhere, khaki-clad bodies bobbing to the surface and tripping up his feet.

One morning a letter came for Albert–not from Frank, and it had been postmarked in the village, though there was no return address. Sophie put it at Albert’s place at the kitchen table for him to read when he came home to eat on his dinner break.

She had her back to him, ladling the soup into bowls, when she heard him slit the envelope and gasp. Then he was crossing the kitchen and heaving opening the stove’s firebox, and she turned just in time to see the envelope and the blank page and the white feather before they were eaten by the fire.

Albert stood shaking, watching the poison things burn. Sophie gently shut the firebox door. “Albert, they’re a horrid person, whoever they are. Put them out of your mind.”

“I might as well be a coward,” Albert said in a low voice. “Living here in useless comfort when Frank and anyone else with any gumption is over there, facing–that.”

“You can’t help having asthma. And you’re not useless. You freed Solomon’s boy to enlist, and I know how hard you work in that store. Think of all the things you’ve knit. And you were such a help when I hurt my hand–”

Albert laughed bitterly. “Oh, yes. Can’t fight, but I can knit and wash dishes and change sheets. I’ll make someone a wonderful wife one day, won’t I?”

Does all my work mean so little, then? Sophie bit down hard on her tongue. “You shouldn’t let petty people upset you so. Come sit and have some soup.”

“I’m not hungry.” He snatched his coat from its hook and stamped out of the door. His muffler, left behind, slithered to the floor into a patch of melting slush.

After eight in the evening, when his dinner had congealed beneath an upturned bowl on the top of the stove, she heard the kitchen door open. She listened for his feet on the stairs, but instead, Albert appeared in the sitting room doorway.

“I nearly walked until after I knew you’d be in bed,” he confessed, “but then I realized I really am a coward.” His face was drawn with fatigue. “I’m sorry, Sophie. I’m sorry for snapping at you, and for–for despairing. Most days I manage to keep a brave face on, but–” He sank into a chair and put his head in his hands.

Sophie reached over and smoothed down his tow-coloured hair, still chilled from the night air. “I don’t think fighting is what makes a man,” she said. He said nothing. She groped for words. “Adventure stories are for boys. A man like Frank, who’s kind and thoughtful, who never turned a hair at helping me with the canning or dusting the sitting room when I was busy, that’s the kind of man the sensible girls want. Any woman who laughs at you for doing the same work they do isn’t worthy of you.”

He rubbed his face. “You’re right, of course. It was thoughtless and ill-spoken of me. Please forgive me.” He sighed. “Frank’s always been a better man than I, and you’re a special sort of woman, Sophie.”

Odd, she would have called herself. “I know more than one girl who’d be happy to have you. It’s only that you’re so shy, they think you don’t like them.”

Albert sat up and made a wry face, not looking at her. “I only like girls I already know.”

The room went very still around them.

Sophie and Frank had discussed things that, she had an inkling, most husbands and wives never did. Nonetheless, they had made promises to one another before he had gone away, and she would stay true to those words as long as both of them had breath in their bodies.

“You will always have a place here with Frank and me,” she said, and let the moment pass.

.-.-

.. / .– .. .-.. .-.. / .– .- .. – / ..-. — .-. / -.– — ..- / .- .-.. .– .- -.– …

.-.-.

Rifle mittens (pair)

Khahi wool, hand-knitted. Heart in purl stitches on palm of left mitten. Irregular purl pattern on palm of right mitten

1918

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.11

.-.-.

A shell exploded not ten feet from Frank, and, he wrote, he was knocked silly and woke up on the ground an unknown amount of time later with his head ringing like a church bell. Aside from bruises and a headache like thunder for days, he didn’t have a mark on him. The man who had been between him and the shell was never found.

Christmas was a dull affair. Sophie and Albert were both very tired.

The crocuses poked up through the snow, and Sophie stopped with her shopping basket handle pressing into her forearm and stared at them in incomprehension. Sometimes it seemed that time had stopped passing altogether, that she would live this same day forever, her spirit gradually ground down between the millstones of dread and tedium.

She churned out knitting with grim willpower all through the Spring Offensive and the Marne and Amiens. Mrs. Douglas joked that she should be awarded the CBE for non-combatant service. When she opened a new tin of Cowan’s Cocoa and the trading card was a lieutenant, Albert pinned it to her knitting bag.

The newspapers and the Red Cross chatter and the hardware store gossip all said that the tide was finally turning, but Sophie, after four years of staunch endurance, found it painful to hope. Frank’s latest near escape seemed to have knocked her numb as well. She developed a strange aversion to war news, to thinking of events overseas at all if she could help it, as though, like someone hiding from a horror in the dark, if she held her breath and kept her eyes down, she could keep Frank’s tenacious luck from running out too soon.

October sixth dawned grey, and kept up a twilight drizzle all day. Sophie and Albert both stayed home from church. Sophie’s eyelids were leaden as she sat over the infinite round of a hospital sock.

Church bells started ringing, which was not unusual for a Sunday, except that they went on and on. Then there was commotion in the street, shouting and cheering. Albert put down the newspaper behind which he’d been nodding, and they looked at each other. Sophie dropped her knitting without, possibly for the first time in four years, finishing to the end of the needle, and they surged out onto the front porch.

Mrs. Murray was on her own porch, clapping her hands and laughing while her boys dipped and swung a somewhat faded Union Jack tied on the end of a stick. Men and children were running in the street and banging on doors.

“What’s happened?” Albert demanded, as anticipation rushed into Sophie’s head like too large a sip of sherry.

“Germany and Austria have sued for peace!” She pressed her clasped hands to her lips, eyes brilliant.

“How do you know?” Sophie whispered.

“Mrs. Gerald’s sister from Toronto ‘phoned her, and Sam McHenry at the station got it over the telegraph. The war’s all but over!”

Beside Sophie, Albert laughed, a sound of relief and joy. Sophie turned to him, and then they were in each other’s arms, clinging hard as if they were holding one another up. When they at last disentangled, Albert was still smiling, but his face was wet, and so was hers.

“I won’t believe it until I see him,” Sophie said tremulously.

Albert fished his handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her. “I think it’s going to seem like a wonderful dream for a long time.”

.-.-

Scarf

Striped red, purple and yellow wool, hand-knitted

1919

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Frank Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.12

.-.-.

It hardly seemed like Christmas without a box to pack for Frank. Demobbing would take months, and Frank didn’t know when he’d be home, but rather than have a box chase him around Blighty, he wrote, she might as well hang onto it and they’d have a feast when he arrived.

In the end, they only had a day’s notice; Frank sent a telegraph from Toronto Union Station, and they met him on the Pryor Mills platform the next afternoon. Sophie flew at him as soon as he stepped down from the coach, and didn’t get a good look at him until after: thin, tanned, with lines on his face that had not been there before. Then he was pulling her close again, until she wriggled free and drank in the sight of him, grabbing at his hands because she couldn’t decide whether she most wanted to look at him or to hold him.

Albert lagged back. Frank spotted him and, keeping an arm around Sophie, caught him up in the other.

“Well, now,” he said, thumping Albert on the back and squeezing Sophie, “you’re both a sight for sore eyes, but I’m knackered and I’d wrestle a battalion for a cup of tea. Let’s go home.”

They spent the next hour intermittently talking all at once and staring at one another. After a time, Albert excused himself and went upstairs. When he came into the kitchen again, he was carrying a carpet bag, and he had his coat on.

“One of the fellows at the bank is putting me up in his spare room. No, you two should be alone. Invite me for a Sunday dinner, Sophie, and I’ll hear all that Frank has to tell then.”

“You don’t have to,” Sophie faltered.

“I think I do,” he said gently, and closed the kitchen door behind himself as he went.

Sophie and Frank spent the next little while touching one another almost all the time, in bed and out of it. Frank wandered around the house and the small garden, running his hands over ordinary things as if he’d forgotten that teacups and dishtowels existed. Often he’d put his hands on her, or his arms around her; it didn’t always lead to lovemaking, although there was plenty of that, but they both felt the need to reassure themselves that the other was real.

They didn’t talk constantly, but in bursts that came at the most ordinary times, while he was buttering his toast or she was harvesting lettuce from the garden. Frank was full of funny stories about rations and marches and nonsensical orders; other, more serious things he could only talk about when they were lying quietly together in the dark. She told him about her own war work, about learning to cook under rationing and how Great-Aunt Una’s lessons in frugality had served her well. She also told him about the fire at Klassen’s–which some people even now didn’t think had been an accident–and the white feather, and eventually they talked about things they’d both come to want over these four long years.

On a soft June evening, they had Albert over for Sunday dinner. Sophie cooked a nice roast and baked an iced cake made with white flour, luxuries that she was having a hard time remembering they could have now, even with Frank back at the cannery office and rationing lifted. Afterwards, they settled into the sitting room, with the windows open to the scent of lilacs from the bottom of the garden.

It felt odd to sit with empty hands. She’d have to cast on something new, Sophie thought, digging through the leftover balls of khaki and green in her knitting basket to see what bright colours had fallen to the bottom. All the boys being home from the front did not mean that there was no need left in the world.

Frank and Albert read bits aloud from the papers and argued amiably about whether they’d rather vacation at a Muskoka resort or on a Great Lakes liner cruise if they’d had the cash for either. Twilight came and the room dimmed, and Sophie rose to light the lamp. When she was shaking out the match, she said, “Albert, we wanted to ask you something.”

Albert put down his folded newspaper. “What’s that?”

“We would be very happy if you would come back home to stay.” He looked down, and she said, “We miss you, and if you miss us too, there’s a place for you here.”

“Always,” Frank said.

Albert pressed his lips together. “Thank you, but I don’t think I should.”

“We won’t press you, if you truly don’t want to. But–” Sophie went over to his chair. “There’s something else here for you, if you wish it.” He looked up at her, brows creasing, and she bent and pressed her lips to his.

Albert inhaled sharply, and looked from Sophie to Frank, who was smiling, and back to her.

“We love you, Albert,” Sophie said. “If you love us, don’t stay away.”

His expression was troubled. “I didn’t mean for you to know. Either of you.”

“I understand. But how can I blame you?” Frank knelt by Albert’s chair and took his hand. “Albert, you know what you mean to me, and I love Sophie with all my heart. For you to love each other as well would make me happier than I can say.”

“You’ve meant so much to me these last few years. I didn’t know how much until you’d gone.” Sophie kissed Albert again, on the temple this time. She knew by now that Albert came to things slowly, that he need time to struggle with what he thought was respectable and right before he gave in. “You don’t have to say anything now. Think about it. We’ll accept whatever you say. But we hope you’ll say yes.”

.-.-

Scarf

Striped red and purple wool, hand-knitted

1919

Knit by Sophie Muirhead for Albert Foster, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.13

.-.-.

The day had been hot, but a thunderstorm had swept through before supper, and now the cool breeze tapped the drawn shade against the open window. Sophie had cooked a souffle, and served it with a salad picked from the garden; now Albert and Frank were doing the dishes, giving her this time to herself. Silk underthings whispered over Sophie’s skin as she pulled them on. She fastened her best girdle, the white one with a little flower embroidered by each hook. She slid on her silk stockings, tracing her fingers up her legs to smooth the knit, imagining other hands unsnapping her stockings and pushing them back down again. Over all this finery she pulled her prettiest dress, violets and leaves on pale mauve. She brushed and rebraided her hair, and pinned the glossy braid around her head. She tied the ribbons on her shoes, appraised herself in the mirror, and went downstairs.

The kitchen was tidy and gleaming. Frank and Albert were in the sitting room, and they both stood when she entered the room–Frank from his chair that no one had sat in while he’d been gone, Albert in the guest chair that had become his, both flanking the small chesterfield where Sophie could sit with her knitting bag beside her. Happiness buoyed Sophie up anew.

Frank extended his hand to her, and she crossed the room to take it. “You look beautiful.” He reeled her in for a kiss, cradling her hand against his heart.

When he released her, she turned to Albert. He was looking at the floor. Sophie cupped his face in her hands, and pulled him down to her.

This was their real first kiss, not an offer but a confirmation of what they both–all–wanted. Albert rested his hands on her upper arms, slid them to her shoulders. She opened his lips with her tongue, letting him taste her in return before she deepened the kiss. His hands glided to her back. When she pulled away, his face was flushed.

Frank tugged at her, and she turned to him. This kiss was not tentative at all, but sure and fierce and thorough. She wondered whether he could taste his best friend on her, and a shiver went through her.

When Frank released her, he nudged her towards Albert again. She put her arms around Albert’s neck. His hands settled on her waist, and she could feel them grip and then loosen, as if he wanted to press her against him but still wasn’t certain he had the right.

“Let’s go upstairs,” Sophie said.

When they reached the bedroom that she and Frank shared, she nudged Albert in first. He paused by the bed, and she went straight to him and kissed him, not giving him the time to worry that he was an intruder in a place that was theirs. Frank came up behind her, close enough that she could feel how aroused he was already.

“You can touch me,” she said to Albert. He put his hands on her waist again. She kissed his jaw. “All of me.”

His hand slid upwards, over the taut surface of the girdle, up to her soft breast. His fingers curved around it, and his thumb swept her nipple, making her inhale sharply. She could feel the heat of his skin through cotton and silk.

His other hand came up to her left breast, and he lowered his mouth to her neck. She tilted her head back, resting it on Frank’s shoulder. Her husband’s breath stirred the fine hairs at her temple.

Held between them, Sophie tilted her hips forward and back, against Albert, against Frank, feeling their matching arousal. Frank clutched at her hip, gathering the cloth of her dress in his fist, drawing it up. Cool air stroked the skin of her thigh above her stocking.

“Take her dress off,” Frank said, his voice deep and husky.

Albert paused and withdrew, regarding her with some puzzlement. Sophie suppressed a smile, and undid the three concealed buttons that held the bodice closed. Together they pushed the cloth down over her shoulders, past her hips. She stepped out of it and pushed the dress aside with her foot. Frank’s fingers stroked the place where her buttock met the back of her thigh, and warmth rose through her like a blush.

“You too, it’s only fair,” she said, and reached for Albert’s tie. He had worn his best for this, she noticed with amused tenderness, and kissed the underside of his jaw before she took care of all his shirt buttons. She smoothed the shirt off his shoulders, but he hadn’t undone his cufflinks, and there was some momentary confusion, until both Sophie and Frank took an arm and freed Albert from the tangle of his shirt.

“Albert,” Sophie said, when he was standing before her in his singlet and trousers, “have you done this before?”

She’d meant, had relations with a woman, but as Albert nodded, Frank chuckled in her ear. Sophie knew that Frank had done this with a man and a woman together before, but he hadn’t said with whom, saying that it wasn’t his secret to give away even to her. Now she wondered whether there might be more to the story of Frank and Albert than her husband had told her.

“You will tell me, won’t you, if there’s something you’d like to do, or if I do something you don’t like?” Albert nodded. “Good. Please take my stockings off. Both of you.”

They each took one leg, kneeling to unsnap the hem of the stockings. Their hands on her thighs were tantalizing; Frank put his mouth on the inside of her left thigh, and Sophie made an unladylike sound as pleasure rippled through her. They untied her shoes as well, and then Sophie was left before them in nothing but her girdle and underthings.

Frank shucked his own shirt, and pressed hot skin to her back. Albert skimmed his hands up the outside of her thighs and arms as he rose.

“Sophie,” he said, almost whispering, “would you please touch me?”

“Touch you like this?” She cupped her hand against the hard front of his wool flannel trousers. Albert gasped and closed his eyes.

Frank reached around her and undid her girdle hooks with expert fingers. Albert’s hands were on her as soon as she was freed from it. He bent and kissed her right breast through the cloth. Frank’s hand crept around to her front and stroked her between her legs, turning the silk damp.

“I want to lie down,” she said, reaching for the fly of Albert’s trousers, pushing back against Frank, wanting everything at once, the relief of skin and touch.

They fumbled each other to the bed and ended up with Sophie still in the middle, Frank in his drawers, Albert in drawers and singlet still. Sophie reached for her husband, in his familiar place to her right, and kissed him hungrily. He pushed his hand under the waistband of her drawers and circled the spot that gave her the most pleasure. She moved her legs apart and rocked her hips up to meet him. Albert’s mouth was on her breast again, her chemise rucked up out of the way.

A warning thrill pulsed through her. “Oh–wait–stop–”

Albert’s touch vanished. Her husband, who knew how to tease her, stilled his fingers and nipped her earlobe. “Ready?” Sophie nodded. “Tell him, then.”

Sophie curved an arm around Albert’s neck and tugged him down to kiss her. “Albert, I want you to be inside me.”

His eyes widened, and he swallowed. Frank pushed her drawers down and sat up to pull them off. Sophie groped for Albert’s waistband, and helped him remove his drawers and singlet.

She propped herself up on an elbow to look at him. Pale all over, with faint golden hair that trailed down his chest and abdomen to gather in curls around his prick, which was longer and straighter than Frank’s. She smiled and reached to stroke him, which made him shudder.

“You’re lovely,” she said. “Lie on top of me.”

He settled between her legs. She reached down and guided him into her.

He was tense and a little awkward, and she had to wriggle her hips to find the right angle, and then there was that wonderful moment where they fit together perfectly. Albert groaned, and she heard her husband faintly echo the sound.

She clutched at his shoulders. “Oh, Albert–move in me, please–”

Confidence or lust, Sophie wasn’t sure, but as soon as he began to move Albert lost all hesitation. He had a marvellous rolling thrust that jolted pleasure through her and made her wrap her legs around him. Frank pressed against her side, his own prick hot and hard, and breathed into her ear, a tiny sensation that seemed to spark down through her to meet Albert’s every thrust.

Albert moaned, and she suspected he wouldn’t last much longer. Sophie arched her back, seeking that one point of sustained stimulation she ached for.

Frank said something, and Albert’s motion faltered. He pulled away from her, and she scrambled for the breath to protest. Then Frank’s hand smoothed down between them and settled on the little, hard centre of her need. Albert began to rock again, Frank’s fingers stroking her in the same rhythm, right there, just there, and–

Sophie caught fire, heat and pleasure and release fizzing through her body like a pot of boiling water overflowing on the stove. Albert’s rhythm went wild, but Frank stayed with her through it, through her shudders and Albert’s, until they both went limp. Then the mattress started rocking again, Frank whispering brokenly to her how he loved to watch her. She turned her head to kiss him, and his mouth came down hard on hers as he spent into his own hand, that must have been slick with her pleasure and maybe Albert’s too.

Albert settled beside her, his breath warm on her shoulder. Frank threw a leg over hers. The room gradually quieted, the boom of her heartbeat fading as she sank into lassitude.

“I love you,” she said into the dimness. Frank sighed in contentment and echoed her, and Albert whispered the words into her skin. Sophie smiled, feeling the connection between them, a thread that might curve and twist but always link them together, creating something new, something heartfelt, something to keep them all warm.

.-.-

Christening gown, bonnet and booties

White cotton, hand-knitted

1920

Knit by Sophie Muirhead and worn by all her children and grandchildren, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1982.352.14a, b, c, d

.-.-.

The parcel came one Wednesday morning, a paper-wrapped cube addressed in Frank’s handwriting. The postmark was months old. Sophie shook it–nothing rattled–and rapped it–it returned a dull thud. She set it in the corner of the narrow hallway, and returned to it several times during her morning’s housework, to look curiously at the colourful British stamps as though they might give her a hint as to what was inside.

“What’s in the parcel?” Albert asked at noon.

“I don’t know. Frank hasn’t mentioned it.”

“Do you suppose he mailed us a souvenir from the front?”

“I do hope not.” Mrs. Douglas’s son had shown off some knives and a flask he swore had been taken from a German officer, but she didn’t think Frank would have wanted to keep that sort of thing.

“Oh, it’s here!” Frank said when he arrived, and carried it in to squeeze it onto the corner of the kitchen table beside the butter dish.

“What on earth is it?”

“All the things that…” Frank looked uncharacteristically abashed. “Maybe you’ll think it’s foolish.”

“Open it,” Albert suggested, as he and Sophie exchanged bemused looks.

She slit the string with the bread knife, which was closest, and undid the paper. Inside was a large tin biscuit box, not new. She prized open the lid.

“Oh, Frank,” she said, and lifted the first pair of socks out.

“You can’t know how much it meant to me, to open one of your parcels and see something from your own hands. Just looking at them warmed me up.” The next pair had inexpert darns, and worn spots she could see her fingers through. “Not a day went by that I wasn’t wearing something you knit for me.” The fingers of the gloves were full of holes. “I couldn’t help feeling that you were keeping me safe, through–” His voice caught, and he put his arms around her and hid his face in her neck. “I didn’t want to leave them behind.”

Albert came and put his hand on Frank’s back. Sophie dropped the trench cap back into the box and put her arms over Frank’s, where they curved around her waist. “Frank, dear. I don’t think it’s foolish at all.” She swallowed, and surreptitiously dabbed one knuckle at her eyes. Everything seemed to make her weepy right now.

After a moment he lifted his head and released her. “I expect you’ll never want to knit anything in khaki again,” he said, with determined cheerfulness.

“Pray we never need to,” Albert said.

“I’ll keep both my men in colourful socks,” said Sophie, with a private internal smile. She wouldn’t tell them yet–she wanted to wait a few more weeks, to be certain–but there was something new on her needles, something small and fine and full of hope. “Now, Frank, please put the tin back in the hall so it’s not taking up the entire table, and Albert, would you fold up the paper and put it in the proper drawer? Then come and sit down so we can eat dinner while it’s still warm.”

.-.-

Sophie Muirhead collection

Knitted articles of clothing made for family members by Sophie Muirhead, Pryor Mills, Ontario

1914-1920

1982.352

Donated by son Francis Albert Foster Muirhead

.-.-.

Read this piece’s entry in the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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