Wednesday 11 September 2019

The Missing Shoe

The Missing Shoe

Inspired by the Textile Collection at the Foundling Museum, London

By Kath O'Gallivan

Her mother gone, her Mistress dead and the Master away to war.

She, in her 13th year has a secret to keep, hidden beneath her stained apron.

A kitchen maid smooring the fire, the goose wing scattering embers, sending soot specks flying.

Back aching.

Head spinning.

A weight pressing.

She is sick.

Cook feeds her a milk posset and camomile tea sweetened with honey.  Brings her linen strips to bind her belly.

She bruises rosemary pressed into her pocket.  Feels a heart shaped shell folding it in her hand.

The pantry store has laden shelves.  Full sacks and empty kegs, stacked crates, heavy basins and demi johns, all jostle for space.

In here she finds her safe place.

She lies on a cot strewn with lavender sprigs and meadow sweet.  Soft layered ticking comforts her and she falls into a busy sleep.

The candles burn sage.

Through the slats garden birds sing.

She labours through the night.  Cook waits, brings rosemary oil to stretch her skin.  Her body ripples, writhing in pain.

Her daughter is born in a rush of dawn chorus.

Cook busy with hot water and muslin, swaddles the child in scrim and pudding cloth.

Wrapped tight, secure in a tea towel the child cries, then settles, suckles, strong and persistent.

All three are content in the smell of warm milk.

The new mother and child sleep, their breathing shared.

Dark brings the night owl screeching.

Blackbird's morning song arrives with pale sunshine touching their sleeping shape.

Cook gives her beef broth, raspberry leaf tea and cabbage leaves for her swollen breasts.

Days of feeding and listening to bird lullabies, cocooned together happy inside each other.

For the journey the Cook offers a cotton-sprig dress, heavy and full gathered with pleating.

The daughter is given tiny silk shoes taken from the nursery for her tiny perfect toes.

Her small body swaddled, wrapped in a fine linen table cloth, corners folded and embossed.  A muslin square anoints her crown.  The cook's soft woolen shawl protects and conceals.

A child with child pretending.

It is time.

The new mother walks slowly, boots tight, feet dragging scattering the pigeons over the cobbles.

The crows caw in the field.

Gulls screech along the river path.

She finds a magpie feather, rests on a stone wall watching the finches feasting on thistle heads.

Her daughter feeds hungrily pressing into her breast.

They cry.

She is frightened, clutching, her bundle closer, tighter.

"A scrap of a thing"

Towards the town, swallows are screaming over the chimneys.

The smoke is stinging her eyes.

She opens the gate, steps lightly through the yard and hears the sparrows squabbling in the mulberry trees.

The doorbell, shines.

The Nurse, kind.

The room, waiting.

Her daughter, given.

The silk shoe, missing.

Her heart, splintered.

Her daughters missing shape, remembered.

Her arms a dull emptiness.

The shoe still warm, safe in her pocket.

Her tired feet recall the morning's steps.

Cook feeds her stew and makes Penny Royal tea.

"It's for the best" she says and lights a candle.

The new mother grips the tiny silk shoe in her pocket.

She watches the starlings as they gather the evening in and she draws a line under the day.

Kath O'Gallivan is a textile artist based in Shropshire making research-led pieces with a focus on eclectic techniques and found materials.  Her career as an art teacher began in 1972 and she now researches the archives at the London Foundling Museum.  Her artistic practice includes painting, material manipulation, dyeing, printing, stitching and mixed media application.  She leads mixed media workshops based on her projects, and delivers talks about her work which prioritise a tactile and interactive pedagogy.

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