Girl in Black

Girl in BlackWe’re going back to 1983 or may be it was 1984, I’m sorry but I can’t remember exactly when.

Anyway, I was beavering away in the workshop of our Oldham Street store when one one of our sales-girls, Gill or Elizabeth or Brenda, popped her head round the corner and asked me to come and help a customer. So I put my tools down and wiped my hands – wouldn’t wish to present myself to a customer with dirty hands.
Hands clean I walked into the store and saw a young woman standing at the counter. I’d say she was in her early twenties, about the same age as meself at the time.
She was dressed head to toe in black and she was what I believe they call a ‘Goth’. She wore a black lace corset – laced at the front. A rather tight and a rather short black skirt, black stockings of the type which, after I explained them to my wife, I’ve learned are are called ‘Hold Ups”.
Anyway, these Hold Ups were holding up just below the hemline of her skirt and they were laddered, on both legs since you ask. She also wore a pair of Doc Marten boots – unlaced and, you guessed it, black. A heavy black leather motorcycle jacket, sporting pointed silver studs arching across both shoulders, finished the ensemble.
Her long black hair was as black as black ink, it was so black it almost looked blue in places. Like the breast of a blackbird spotted in the snowy winters garden. Her face was powdery white and pale and she wore an awful lot of black eye shadow. She had quite full lips – deep purple. I mean really deep purple, almost black. Got the picture?

I asked the girl how I could help her. She placed both her hands on the glass-topped counter and I noticed that her long nails were jet black and she noticed that I noticed and she started to tap those nails on the glass, as the panther might when extending the claws just before leaping for the throat. She tilted her head to one side and, moving only her eyes, looked me up and down. She didn’t seem impressed with what she saw – not that she should have been, you understand.

My sewing machine is broken she said, finally. I need someone to fix it.
Well, I replied, if you would bring your machine into our store I’ll take a look at it and see what can be done.
I can’t bring it in, she interrupted, and I don’t drive and anyway its too heavy. I don’t have much money either, she added. She looked me straight in the eye as she delivered this with quite the defiant look on her powdery white face. Daring me, it seemed, to challenge her in some way. The nails tapped again.
I mulled things over for a moment and then I asked the girl where she lived. When she told me where, I knew that I passed her home all the time when out visiting schools to service their machines. She lived in one of the many high rise flats that used to climb into the grey skies of central Manchester. They were council owned buildings and I’m not entirely sure but I think the equivalent term for similar buildings and homes in America is ‘projects’.
They all met their demise some years back when riots and bombs persuaded the government of the time to dig deep into the public purse and redevelop. They have been largely replaced now by private snazzy apartment blocks which climb into Manchesters still grey skies.

I asked the girls name and address and she told me and she told me her name was Miss Ritzy (it was something else but you’ll forgive me if curtesy prevails and I keep that to myself, dear reader). I took out my diary and pencilled in a date that suited us both. I looked up from the page and met her gaze and her eyes narrowed. Don’t let me down, she said and she turned on her Doc Martened heel and loped out into the bustle of Oldham Street and was gone.

A few days later I was driving back from a local city centre school after servicing numerous machines. I pulled off the busy street and into the small courtyard at the foot of the high rise flats. Carrying the toolcase my father had shown me how to make – dovetail joints and all – I walked to the entrance and cast an eye up the sheer cliff wall of the high rise. The block looked like something from 1950’s communist Moscow – or at least that’s how I imagined things looked in 1950’s communist Moscow. In any event, I pitied the poor blighters condemmed to live in such a place.

It was a freezing cold day and it had just begun to rain.
Inside the dark concrete floors and walls of the hallway were wet and I’m afraid to say there was an unpleaseant pong of urine – sorry about that but there you have it.
Inevitably, the girl lived on almost the top floor and, inevitably, as I walked over to the two lifts/elevators I spotted the ‘Out of Order’ signs stuck to the doors. I took to the stairs and began my ascent.

Finally, I reached the floor where the girl lived and I walked along an open balcony as I counted down the numbers to her door. The wind was biting and the rain was slanted at 45 degrees and it cut into my face and soaked me. I found the number I was looking for and I knocked on the door and, after a moment, it opened but only so far. A chain snapped the door to a stop at five or six inches of its travel. I recognised the darkly shadowed eye staring out from the gloom. The wind was beginning to make small howling noises and I was beginning to shiver standing there on the doorstep with my toolbox.
The door slammed shut and I heard the chain being slipped from its anchor. The door opened and there stood the girl in her doorway.
Hello, I’ve come like I promised you I would to see what can be done with your machine, I said.
She just stood there holding her door ajar staring at me and she still didn’t trust me and it was a little bit tense and a little bit awkward and I thought she might slam the door shut and that would be that.

You’d better come in, she said, finally. So I took a step into her lair and wondered what I might find. There was, you see dear reader, something of the witch about this young woman. Or so I thought. She showed me along a small hallway and into a small and unremarkable living room heated by a three bar electric fire.
Would you mind if I warm myself by your fire, I asked. She shook her head slightly and said no. I took a few paces over to the fire and felt a shiver as the heat embraced me.

This time she wore what appeared to be a black leather dress. Two straps over her bare pale shoulders and her arms were also bare and milk white. The same kind of hold ups and boots. She reached for a black sweater from the settee and pulled it on quickly and dragged her long hair out from the neck of the sweater.
The room was poorly furnished. The carpet was bland and worn and along one wall sat a small settee – there was no coffee or dining table. There was a clothes rack, the type you will find in any ladies department store, holding the girls wardrobe of various black outfits of lace and leather and pvc and denim. All hanging neatly each, it struck me, like a uniform to be worn for a certain operation, or day or event.
I spotted her sewing machine sat on the floor. It was a Japanese Newhome, a flatbed in a wooden base. A good machine – basic and simple and heavy, a good workhorse.
The girl stood in the doorway to the room hiding her body behind the door frame still unsure about this interruption and intrusion into her life. Only her face seemed visible and it seemed to float in the darkness.
I asked if I could take a look at her machine and she said that I could so I got on my knees and turned the balance wheel. She took a small step or two towards me as if she needed to be ready to protect and defend her machine. Maybe I would feel her cold claws tighten around my neck…
As I turned the wheel the machine locked and wouldn’t move.

Have you got any spare newspaper, I said.
What for, she asked me.
I want to lay some on the floor so I don’t get any oil or dirt on your carpet, I replied.
The girl disappeared into another room and I heard a cupboard drawer slide open. She returned with a newspaper and she handed it to me and I took it and opened it and laid it on the floor and spread the pages.
I opened my toolcase and found a couple of my faithful screwdrivers, with well worn handles, and I tipped the machine back and loosened the two grub screws that gripped the hinges and lifted the head from the base and sat it on the paper. I removed the top cover and opened the side or faceplate, removed the bobbincase and slipped away the guard ring and pulled the shuttle from the raceway. Now the machine was uncovered and I could see what was going on. I removed the needle and replaced it with a new one. After a little while and some turning of the balance wheel, backwards and forwards, I could see that the needlebar height and the shuttle timing needed adjustment, as did the feed dogs.

So, I made the adjustments and I cleaned the raceway and added a drop of oil. I added further drops of oil here and there. I took a small piece of emery paper from a drawer in my toolbox and I smoothed away a few small marks from the point of the shuttle where the needle had struck it. After stripping the tension unit and cleaning the discs I rebuilt it and tested the torsion of the check spring. I made a small adjustment to the bobbincase tension and then, finally, I did a sew test. The machine sewed like a dream and flew. A lot of the old, heavy Japanese sewing machines, like this Newhome, always seemed to sew at 100 hundred miles an hour – they were very fast.

The girl had movd from the door like a shadow and was now stood over me, watching me. I rose to my feet.
Your machine is fine, now. I said. I moved away and started to pack my tools back into my case.
Try it for yourself, I said.
The girl lowered herself to the floor to try her machine. I thought it best not to ask why she didn’t buy a small table to sit her machine on. She sat crossed legged and operated the foot control with her knee. She tested her machine and I could see she knew how to use it – and I liked that. I often say to customers who have minor troubles with their machines that part of the secret is to try and get the ‘feel’ of their sewing machine. This girl in black had learned that secret.

She rose and went to her clothes rack and pulled out a box from under her outfits. After a quick search she pulled out a piece of black leather. Walking back to her machine she gave me a look. One of her eyebrows was arched and she raised her chin slightly, as if to say, now I will test my machine my way – and you.
She placed the leather under the presser foot and began to sew. The machine sewed it perfectly and she stopped and inspected the stitch. She sewed some more and then stopped. The girl removed the leather and cut the thread and she rose to her feet. She looked at the stitching very carefully and she looked at me and I could see she wanted to say something but it wasn’t easy, so I said, I bet your machine has never sewed as well as that, before.
I handed her a packet of Leathpoint needles I’d taken from my toolbox. You should use these on your leather outfits. They’ve got a chisel end, not a point like a regular needle, and they’ll cut through the leather that bit easier. She reached out and took them.

Then, a look of guilt, the first sign of vulnerability I’d seen from the girl in black. I haven’t got any money to pay you, she said. I could have got angry but I didn’t becuase I’d expected as much and anyway, I’ve always been a steady player.
Don’t worry, I said, there’s no charge. A look of suspicion flashed across her face, now. I think she may have expected some retaliation to her response of, no cash. My reply seemed to catch her off guard.
I picked up my toolcase and made for the door. Good luck with your outfits, I said, and started down the hallway. The girl, realising I truly didn’t want anything from her slipped by me and reached her front door. She turned and reached out her hand to shake mine thanks, she said. You’re very welcome dear sausage, I replied and suddenly the girl in black with the blue/black hair and the powdery white face with purple lips gave me the most beatific smile. I found myself holding on to her hand longer than I should but I couldn’t help but linger in the warmth of that smile for a while and she didn’t seem to mind.
Then, I was outside and now the wind was really howling around the damp old corridors of that high rise block and it was still raining and my face was soon soaked, again. But somehow, I didn’t seem to notice or care.

A few weeks later I was in the store again. The doors opened and in walked a poory dressed woman. She looked old and worn out and her hair was unkempt and unwashed. Her face was wrinkled and weathered and dry and her eyes were cruel and glittered with anger. Her chin was long and pointed and two or three white hairs curled away from the point. She’d lost most of her teeth which had caused her face to sink and only eaxgerated her long pointed chin. Her bare legs were sharp and flaky and she wore very worn flat shoes.

You Alan, she asked, her tilted back somewhat.
Yes I am, I replied.
You fixed the girls sewing machine at ____ flats.

I did.
It seemed some kind of victory for the woman and she sort of sneered at me.
You mean, ‘Miss Ritzy’
A cackle of a laugh erupted from the toothless mouth. Miss Ritzy my eye, spat the woman. Jones is her name. Jones. I should know I’m her mother. Another look of defiance and, looking at her, I wondered if she’d ever known love, or ever shown it. Had she ever caressed the face of the girl in black and said, I love you daughter of mine.

Anyway, said the woman breaking my thoughts, she wants some more of those leather type needles. I pulled a packet from the wooden dispenser my father had made years before.
I placed them on the counter and told her the price.
From one of her pockets she pulled out a small and very worn red purse which had started to turn dark grey in places. She fingered through her change and then, fiding the correct amount, slapped it down on the counter, hard and gave me another challenging look. I thought she must go from day to day looking for conflict and disagreement.
Thank you, very much, I said. The woman rocked forward a little. Like she was ready for me to react in a way which would give her an excuse to attack. She pulled back somewhat deflated that I hadn’t, like a false start. Her fingers scrabbled on the counter to pick up the packet of needles and she gave me one last sneer and was gone. I watched her walk down Oldham Street. A hunched figure of spite and disappointment.

Later that night I reflected, as I so often do dear reader, on the day and the days before that were tied to the day. Perhaps the girl in black with the white powdered face wasn’t the witch – perhaps, in fact, she was an Angel. May be her mother was the….., well, I’ll leave that for you to decide, my reader.

Alan Bamber

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