LONDON, ENGLAND – August 24th, 1940
In the midst of a war, there are always victims.
Always helpless. Always innocent. Always painfully unaware.
Always prey to the chaos and turmoil of battle.
The small children of Redcross Way, who were huddled together in the shadowed corner of their dismal room, were only one of many such victims that night. Surrounding them was their guardian, their nanny of 3 years now. She held them close despite the growing heat in the air from the fires that raged outside, growing ever closer with every bomb that fell.
“BOOM!” The thunderous sounds of war rang out like drums in the night, keeping in beat with the shrill barrage of machine guns. The children cowered in fear, and futively tried to cover their ears. So the elderly woman began to hum absentmindedly, subconsciously trying to distract the young ones from the overpowering sounds of destruction. Encouraged by the calming lullaby, one of the children spoke out.
“Nana, will you tell us a story?” a young boy pleaded, looking up at her with eyes large with trepidation, not unlike that of a timid animal.
She smiled then, a small, sweet smile that reminded him of past days filled with nothing but nursery rhymes, soft blankets, and warm milk. That was the time before the war, a far-off paradise beyond reckoning now.
“Of course, darling” the nanny cooed, stroking his cheek. “What sort of story would you like me to tell?” she inquired. The boy then looked at all his siblings around him. Silently, they communicated amongst themselves. Soon, it seemed, they came to an agreement.
“Go on, Anna, you can tell Nana.” the skinny boy offered. Hesitantly, the youngest of the little ones began to speak.
“W-would y-you, t-t-that is if you wouldn’t mind, Nana, tell us…a-a fairytale?” the impossibly tiny girl shyly requested, never dragging her gaze up from the sooty floor.
Nodding, Nana took her hand, and pulled the precious child toward herself. Then she gently set the small one upon her lap, and brushed away the dirt upon the child’s dress.
“Nothing would make me happier, Anna-dear. I know just the tale,” the round, old woman beamed, and Anna nestled contentedly into her arms. Temporarily distracted from their fear, the other children settled around their nanny as well. Clearing her throat, she began to speak.
“Once upon a time…there lived a seamstress.”
BRADFORD, ENGLAND – The Summer of 1917
The town was crowded and bustling, as all marketplaces are in the heat of the day, and there among the stands wandered a woman. She did not appear unusual in any way. Her pale blue dress and smock was simple and humble, and she bore herself as any other would. To the straying eye, this woman was just another passer-by, another browser.
Her name was Irene.
Irene was not quite normal. Growing up, Irene had difficulty mastering the developmental milestones that children her age were expected to. It was hard to concentrate. Hard to focus. Sometimes it was hard to even breathe. Being a strictly traditional family, the Yarbrough household had never been very understanding of their youngest member. So they decided that Irene should be reared like any other girl, not allowing room for slack or error. Now after years and year of education, she had simply learned to read, write, and sew: the skill set of a young girl.
They were beyond frustrated. All she had ever been to her family was a financial drain. Irene had never been very good at things that made one successful and admirable. So as soon as she was able, she left her home behind in search of a career to please her judgmental elders. Irene hoped she could prove herself capable of accomplishing anything she set her mind to, regardless of her disability. However, she often had more doubt than confidence.
This is what she had struggled with until Irene came upon this village, where there lived a tailor who was almost as desperate for workers as she was to work. She was hired on the spot. Irene could not describe how much of a relief it felt to be needed, to be of value.
She loved her job. Every day she strived to do her best, and she did not disappoint. Thomas, the man who had hired her, served as the shop’s master tailor. Throughout the day, he would often compliment her skill and commend her hard work, and since the beginning of her stay here, she had not had trouble focusing on her work. Everything seemed to be going so well…
Then one day, as she was working in the shop on a dress being made for a wealthy client, Irene felt a shiver go up her spine. Turning around, she saw no one was there, but she felt sure that someone was watching her.
Irene turned back to her sewing, determined to focus her mind. Feeling eyes upon her once more, she let her gaze sweep the room without moving her head, but nothing could prepare her for what she saw out of the corner of her eye.
“Is that…a wing?!” Irene thought, nearly fainting as the shock rode through her system. Just to be sure, she looked again, but to her disappointment, there was nothing there. Everything was in its place. Returning to her stitches, she sighed and reached for some more thread.
A shimmer caught her eye, and there on the table holding her tools was a spool of thread that had not previously been there. Curious, Irene picked it up and inspected it closely. There was a beautiful chiming sound there where none had been before, but it sounded distant- muted
Once again her eyes searched the room, trying to find the visitor that had brought her this peculiar present. Had no one else noticed anything? Irene wondered, looking around at the other employees toiling at their stations. No one had moved; all were focused upon their duties.
Turning to her work, she paused for a moment, and then feeling daring, she threaded the string through the needle.
- Several Days Later -
Irene had finally finished the dress commissioned by Mrs. Whyspren, the wealthy client who had been waiting for her gown impatiently since the day she ordered it. As she studied her handiwork, Irene felt a beam of pride. It is truly my best work, she thought.
The skirt of the dress fell to the floor in elegant pink waves, while the tanned bodice sparkled with little beads. Along the neckline, she had embroidered an intricate pattern lace. The sleeves were loose and made of thin chiffon- smooth as silk. Bolts of shimmering gold fabric hugged the bodice and draped to either side of the dress, each bolt gracefully narrowing to a point in the front while falling short in the back. Its edges were lined with exquisite trimming.
Altogether, the dress shimmered and sang with the addition of the mysterious and magical thread.
Hearing the entry bell ring downstairs in the storefront, she knew her customer had arrived. Eager to please, Irene made her way downstairs to the excited woman.
“Good day to you, Mrs. Whyspren. Are you ready to see your dress?” she asked, approaching the older woman.
“Of course I am, child. I was simply talking with Mr. Thomas here. By all means, lead the way, dearie!” Mrs. Whyspren urged breathlessly, all smiles. So the two began to climb the stairs, to the second floor where the dress had been completed.
As soon as she saw it, Mrs. Whyspren gasped. Irene smiled to herself, rocking quietly on her heels as she waited for her customer’s praise. Turning to the older woman, she expected to see a wide grin. What she saw was not at all what she had expected.
Mrs. Whyspren looked utterly crestfallen.
“It’s…it’s! Well…uh…it’s just that this is not at all what I wanted!”
Irene felt the blood rush to her face, and the world began to tilt dangerously. There was no mistaking that look. Those words. Irene was all too aware of their meaning.
Inadequacy. Disappointment. Not good enough.
She felt her body take control, and before she could comprehend what was happening, Irene found herself in the garden behind the shop, all alone.
Falling to the ground, she held her head in her hands. “Why am I constantly a failure? Why can’t I do this right?” she sobbed brokenly. Then, out of nowhere, came a soft voice.
What’s wrong, young one?
“I wanted to prove to myself that my parents were wrong,” cried Irene dejected. “I wanted to be something special…someone— wait, who are you?!” she called, as she looked up frightened.
Do not worry. I am a friend, the voice reassured when Irene began to cry again. I am here to help you.
All your life others have dashed your hopes and dreams for a beautiful future. Those who should have loved you treated you as a burden, and yet you still hold on to hope.
I am a messenger. I am here to tell you that within you there is strength unmatched by any other. With your story, you will be an anchor for others in a time of uncertainty and peril.
Dry your eyes, Irene, and remember to never stop fighting.
Irene wiped the tears from her face as the voice faded away. Then, hearing Thomas call her name from the back door, Irene stood and began her journey back inside. Looking back to the dying light of the sun in the distance, she merely smiled before returning to the chaos she left behind.
LONDON, ENGLAND – August 25th, 1940
“…And from then on she lived as happily as she could,” the old woman finished with a sigh. “Even now.”
A significant amount of time had passed since she had begun the story, and the sun was rising and timidly shining through the cloudy window. At one point or another during the night, the children had all fallen fast asleep tucked up against their nanny.
The old woman looked about, feeling the dark bags underneath her eyes quite clearly. Smiling fondly down at the little ones surrounding her, she shifted her body ever so slightly, attempting not to wake them, but trying to be more comfortable. Nevertheless, one of the children woke up, disturbing his brothers and sisters with his wide stretching. Sadly, because of the war, they had all become fairly light sleepers. The night was a time of terror after all.
Blinking sleepily, the young boy looked up at his nanny, and whispered, “Good morning, Nana.”
“Good morning to you too, my darling,” she replied, sighing once more. “I didn’t mean to wake you up, dear, but now is as good a time as ever to greet the day, isn’t it? Would you go wake up the rest of your siblings for me, please?” she asked.
“Sure, Nana,” the young boy yawned. Then he got up, a mischievous smile on his face. Obnoxiously, the way that all boys are prone to do things, the boy began to relentlessly and mercilessly poke his siblings in their sides, resulting in them rising up with giggles, grunts, and war cries.
In no time at all, the children were chasing each other through the house, and out into the yard. Even Anna, the shyest of them all, joined in the merriment, making little growling noises that sounded more like a kitten’s purr than a lion’s roar as she raced after her brothers.
Their ruckus could be heard from the kitchen, where Nana was preparing an early breakfast from their rationed food stocks. She smiled, hearing their laughter and mirth. These sounds brought great joy and reprieve to her heart, for she had worried that with all the damage caused by this great war, the little ones’ spirits would be beaten as well, leading them to despair.
So deep in her thoughts she was, that she had not noticed nor heard that the children had become silent. So she was quite surprised when she felt a harsh tugging upon her skirts. Nana looked down to see little Anna at her feet, and the rest of the children behind her.
Now very worried, she looked into their troubled faces. “What’s the matter?” she inquired. Without a word, they lead her to the door. Standing there were two police officers looking unkempt and disheveled.
“Evenin’, Ma’am,” the taller of them said, with an authoritative tone. “We’ve come to notify you that everyone is to be evacuated from this area of the city within the hour.”
“Oh, of course, officers. We’ll pack up our things as quickly as we can,” the elderly woman promised him. Turning to the young ones, she hurried them off telling them to gather their belongings. Returning to the men hovering at her door, she thanked them, and was about to shut the door when she noticed how torn up the younger officer’s uniform was.
I can assuredly do something about that, she thought. Invitingly, she beckoned the two men in, and sat them down at the kitchen table. After bringing them cups of diluted green tea and small, stale cakes, she faced the smaller of the two, “Now young man, I would most grateful if you let me stitch up that shirt for you, since you’re being so kind in aiding us,” Nana insisted.
“No such thanks are necessary, Ma’am, but I will oblige you. That is–if it’s not a burden,” he replied, pulling the ripped piece of clothing over his head and offering it to the woman.
“No, it is not a burden at all, young sir. I’m happy to do it,” she reassured him with a gentle smile, taking the uniform, and departing to go seek out her sewing kit.
After carefully mending the tears and patching the holes, Nana collected her meager possessions, and called the young ones downstairs. At the kitchen table, the officers were talking quietly, speaking of the enemy’s tactics and politics, the usual discussions of men.
“Here you are, officer,” she said, handing the shirt back to the young man. “We are prepared to leave whenever you feel ready.”
“I am most certainly in your debt. Thank you,” he replied, taking his shirt back from the elderly woman, and giving her a grateful smile.
“Well then, if that’s all, let’s be on our way,” the other officer decided. “Come along now,” he urged, holding the door open for the little ones and their nanny.
However the younger officer remained in the room, fingering the new stitches in his shirt. They were very well done, a true exhibition of the mender’s remarkable skills- quite remarkable considering her age must make her hands shake when holding a needle. And yet- that was not what made the stitching extraordinary. Despite the dim light of the room, the thread seemed to shimmer ever so slightly, and for a second he could have sworn he heard music.
Clearly I have not been getting enough sleep lately, he thought, shaking his head and pulling the garment over his head. Then as quick as he could, he ran out the door to join his comrade to guide the little family to the train station through the battle-scarred neighborhood.