The Checkered Sweater
“Now, Penny, tell me. What do you think? Be honest!”
Penelope drew her eyes away from the rain-pattered window that gave a glimpse of rock outcrops above the long Welsh valley. Yet another sweater was strung out between her mother’s hands. This one was knitted from thick wool in a checkerboard of red and black. Two fist-sized square pockets, one red and one black, were stitched on the front.
Penny nodded, noncommittal. The more she demurred, the more her mother would decide to like it. But if she were at all positive, her mother was entirely capable of buying them a matching set.
“It’s handmade right here in the valley from their very own sheep.” Penelope’s mother thrust her head through a thicket of climbing ropes looped over a rafter to peer into the other side of the store. “Jane! Come and see! Jane!”
The place was empty except for them and the boy behind the counter, deep in a Rock and Ice magazine and just enough older than Jane to catch her eye. Penelope wouldn’t have blamed her daughter for slipping outside to avoid the mortification of being commandeered as her grandmother’s wardrobe consultant, but her bet was that Jane would appear relatively fast. When you ignored Nanna, she got louder.
“None of your friends will have one like it.” Jane had always been a truthful child, tempered by a disinclination to cause pain. “And if you got bored, you could take it off and play checkers or chess. The black pocket could hold the black pieces and the red pocket could hold the red ones.”
“What an original idea.” Although Penelope’s mother adored Jane, of late Nanna was beginning to struggle with the nuances of teenage repartee. Comments that would have been charming in the mouth of an eight-year-old can sound disconcertingly sarcastic from a girl nearly twice that age. “The collar is a little scratchy…. What it needs is a crisp, white turtleneck.”
Jane sidled away to the bookstand. It had a direct line of sight to the till. The boy laid his magazine down to reach for a rack of climbing gear behind him. He was on the scrawny side with overdeveloped forearms. A crag rat, and not much different from the ones Penelope had climbed with 20 years ago. Penelope watched him unclip one of the slings and check the knot. His hands were wrapped in grimy athletic tape. Wisps of cotton fluff rose at the seams like those gift soap animals that grow fur when exposed to air. Jane would be more attuned to the low-slung jeans, boxer band in evidence, and the rumpled spill of dirty blond hair over his shoulders.
“Penny, come help me with this.” Her mother had struggled out of the sweater and was trying to unzip the light fleece underneath. She was a great believer in layers. “I want to see how it fits with just a shirt.”
Penelope disentangled her mother’s buoyant white curls from the zipper and helped work the sweater back into place. She parted the silken rainbow of climbing ropes that curtained the fitting room and held them back in the crook of her arm, supple as snakes, so they could look in the mirror together. Penelope stood a head taller, still lean, slouch verging on hunch, complexion frayed by weather and time. Despite the old caveat to gaze upon the mother before wedding the daughter, Penelope detected little similarity. Her mother was round everywhere, pronouncedly so, even her gleaming brown eyes. Her bust was formidable. In that sweater, she made Penelope think of a fireboat on patrol in some big city harbor. Penelope turned the price tag on one of the ropes.
“These got expensive!”
“Everything has.” Her mother craned her neck for a rear view. “But don’t tell me you’d ever climb again, I thought Alistair gave that up years ago. Now, be honest, how does it look?”
The rope slipped away through Penelope’s fingers like a stream of dry water. Alistair had indeed given up climbing. He gave it up when Jane was born. So Penelope gave it up, too. Can’t haul a baby around the cliffs on your own.
Alistair stayed fit. He joined a gym where he lifted weights and played squash with men from the office at lunch or after work. He belonged to a weekend Cricket club. None of it was anything she could share. None of it had even a whiff of the excitement to be found halfway up a slab of wet granite with your lover’s life in your hands and all the world below and all the sky above.
“Penny, pay attention. Does it make me look large?”
“It looks like what it is, a warm woolly sweater with you in it.”
Penelope watched Jane peek over a guidebook at the boy. As mothers and daughters went, Penelope had even less in common with Jane than she did with her own mother. Every shift of light, every quick distinct gesture, brought to mind Alistair’s eldritch cast and delicate bones. That was looks, she reminded herself, not essence.
Jane had barely reacted when Alistair opted out of their Easter holiday saying that three women in one car on Welsh roads was too much for him. Penelope had reacted plenty. Their annual trip wandering around somewhere mountainous was about the only family tradition they still kept. Admittedly, this was the first time her mother had invited herself along. But there’d been something else.
Penelope had been packing up the car when Alistair chose to mention his company wanted to send him to Japan for a few months, maybe more. Penelope hadn’t trusted herself to ask for details. She was already late to pick up her mother, which Alistair knew full well at the time. She’d spent the greater part of the trip so far trying and failing to digest the implications of what he’d said, though it was a nontrivial endeavor with her mother around.
“I can’t decide.” Her mother turned to the left and then to the right, frowning at herself in the mirror. “Go see if you can find one in the next size down.”
There weren’t any smaller sweaters on the shelf. Jane busied herself with a rail of anoraks as Penelope approached the counter. The boy was looping candy-colored carabiners from beam to beam like a paper chain. The caption on his t-shirt read Ice climbers do it in crampons.
“Ouch,” said Penelope.
Startled, he followed her gaze.
“Oh.” His grin had a couple gaps, but it was friendly. “Cold, too.”
“You’re American.” Penelope noticed Jane emerge to hover over the case of fancy sunglasses and asked, as if the answer weren’t obvious, “What brings you over here?”
“The rock. And you? Tourists?”
“We live here.” Nothing provoked Jane like the T word. Her voice was pure Alistair, pure Brit. “Except for my grandmother. And she’s going to move here soon.”
Penelope fingered the knot in the boy’s sling. The edges needed to be burnt or they’d frazzle. She reached for her lighter. There wasn’t one. Hadn’t been for years. Smoking had long since gone the way of climbing. For a split second, it occurred to her that a cigarette was just what she needed right then.
She’d let herself assume her mother was only playing with the idea of selling her place in New York so she could come and live with them and travel back and forth to Europe before she got too old and, also, have enough extra money to send Jane to a co-ed boarding school for the sixth form. This was an enchanting prospect to a girl who yearned for romance but still read The Chalet School books under the covers. Penelope had another look at the boy. Maybe she should spirit him and his gear into the wild and leave her mother and Alistair to sort things out. That would surprise them.
“Penny!” Her mother’s voice rang through dangling nuts, hexes, and chocks. “Did you find a smaller size?”
“I’ll look in the storeroom.” The boy ducked into a dim back hallway where boots, books, plastic bags of clothing, and boxes loomed. At the far end, a piebald goat with stubby horns peered over half a Dutch door.
“Is he friendly?” Jane came up to the counter.
“Sure, come around and pat him.”
The boy led her past the DO NOT ENTER sign. Penelope listened to him introduce Jane to the goat. This would set Jane up for a week. Then she would plunge into a miasma of gloom when she realized absolutely nothing more would come of it.
Penelope watched her daughter scratch the goat under his wispy white beard. The goat nibbled her sleeve. A gust of wind, smelling of wet earth laced with something pungent, presumably goat, swept in over Penelope and sucked back like a big wave. She flipped through another climbing magazine, wondering what Jane would make of so many glossy, tanned and muscular, primarily male, bodies in all manner of extremity. It was a far cry from the climbing they used to do and what they did it in.
She’d met Alistair not far from this very shop. 1978. She was on a bike tour. He was an impecunious university student camping in a farmer’s field. Her tire blew out in the Llanberis Pass, and he’d stopped to see if he could help. They got talking, the tire was beyond repair, and he talked her right off the tour and onto the crags. It seemed so clear and certain then, that if they could be happy in a pup tent for rainy days and nights on end with nothing to eat but baked beans and digestive biscuits, they’d be happy anywhere, forever.
“He’s gone to look out back.”
“And you let Jane go with him?” Her mother appeared, momentarily distracted by the same display of sunglasses as her granddaughter, but not for long. “Penny, he had an earring. You know what that means!”
“He listens to heavy metal?”
Jane glanced up from the goat darkly, as if Penelope’s mother were somehow Penelope’s fault, as if Penelope had any influence on her whatsoever. Thankfully, when the boy reappeared, her mother became sweetness and light, intent upon focusing his attention on finding her another size.
“That’s the only one, honestly,” he repeated with no apparent irritation.
“The sign says these are made by local craftsmen.” Penelope’s mother flipped the neck of the sweater so the boy could look at the label.
“One of the farms, I guess.”
“Mom, you should see the goat!” Jane was tugging at Penelope’s arm. “It wags its tail like a dog, and it has yellow eyes with pupils like black diamonds. Luke says it’s really intelligent and gets along with dogs and doesn’t need much space and eats garbage, which is really good for the environment. It’s his lunch hour, and he’s going to let me feed it.”
“Jane, if you want to go to boarding school the last thing you need is another pet.” Penelope’s mother was peering at the label herself now, not that she’d be able to see anything without her reading glasses. “They must be in the phone book.”
Luke produced a phone book for her, which she handed to Penelope along with the sweater.
“Ewenitums. Good grief.” Penelope found the number, dialed, and waited for a count of ten. “Busy. Too bad, but I’m sure we’ll see other sweaters.”
“Oh, I’d love to go to a farm with lambs.” Lately, Jane had developed a little girl pout that she’d never had as a little girl, and Penelope had yet to come up with a strategy to break her of the affectation without breaking anything else in the process.
“What’s the address?” Luke took the phone book back. “Sure, I know. I went past it a few weeks ago to get to some bouldering.”
“Come on, girls, everyone aboard.” Penelope’s mother dropped the sweater on the counter. Then she thought better of it. “Put this to one side for me, just in case.”
“That compact won’t get you there. You need four-wheel drive.” Luke glanced from Penelope to her mother and back. “Seriously.”
“What about a taxi? There must be some man around here who has a back-roads vehicle. What about that Jeep out front?”
“That belongs to the store—”
“Then you can take us!” Penelope’s mother gathered up her coat and handbag, and headed for the door. “On your lunch hour!”
Luke shrugged and dug some keys out of the till. Ten to one he had a mother or a grandmother just like her safely on the far side of the Atlantic. Penelope looked at Jane. It was never wise to assume.
“Do you want to stay here or go for a ride?”
Jane tossed her head as she followed her grandmother. “At least she makes things happen.”
And that, Penelope had to admit as they rattled over yet another cattle grid, was true.
Luke wasn’t a bad driver, but he went fast and the road was full of ruts. Jane sat up front with shining eyes and blown-about hair. Penelope sat in back with her mother, who clutched her arm and yelped at every bump.
The farm spread out between gentle green hills. There was a low stone house with deep set windows either side of a plank door painted black, and several stone barns. They parked in a yard of well-churned mud. Jane jumped down in her pink high-tops with a splat and, as she caught Luke’s eye, a laugh that slammed into Penelope with the force of years forever gone. Penelope’s mother wore sensible shoes but walked to the house with difficulty. It wasn’t often that she looked her age. Luke stayed beside the Jeep, jiggling the keys. The house was shut, silent and still.
“Go on, knock,” said Penelope’s mother.
No response. Plenty of sheep in the fields, not a person in sight. Penelope had noted a smudge of smoke above the chimney as they drove up. It would seem that visitors were not welcome. Or the inhabitants were out. Or asleep. Or dead. Beyond the paddocks, a boulder drenched in sudden sun broke up the easy sweep of the hill.
“Nobody’s home. Let’s go.”
“Don’t be silly.” Penelope’s mother marched up and banged on that door with the red plastic handle of her umbrella.
Minutes later, the door swung open. A very short man with a very wrinkled face stood there, mouth firmly shut. A border collie growled softly in the shadows.
“I came to see your sweaters. They didn’t have a full selection at the store.”
“Wife’s not here.”
“That’s all right. I know what I’m looking for.” Penelope’s mother sailed past man and collie. The door closed firmly in her wake.
“Want to check out that boulder?”
Luke and Jane set off for the hillside. Penelope stayed where she was, undecided. The dark windows gave no clue to what was happening inside the house. She edged closer as nonchalantly as possible until black-and-white ears flickered and nostrils smeared the glass. Penelope turned and left. There weren’t any screams, and one thing her mother could do when necessary was scream.
Luke and Jane were in front of the boulder. He’d knelt down to tighten his laces. Penelope considered potential routes as she walked toward them. The boulder was maybe 20 feet high and twice that in length. Both ends broke off into toothy steps. The middle stretch was steep and sheer. Luke flexed his hands over his head and took a deep breath. Then he went and minced straight up the hardest bit like a shaggy blond tree frog. Penelope held her breath, waiting to see if Jane would attempt to follow. She didn’t. She happily scrambled up the easy part on the left side.
“Lambs!” Penelope heard her say. “Oh, can we pet them?”
“We can try.”
Penelope studied the boulder. Like her mother she wore sensible shoes, sensible for sidewalks. Sneakers would have been better. Bare feet would be better. For a brief, liberated second she began to untie her laces, but she couldn’t do it, not in April, not in a pasture full of sheep shit, not with her mother in close proximity. She laid a palm on the rock. It was rough and solid. Her spine tingled down to the tip of her coccyx. The old thrill. She used to be good at this, better in the end than Alistair and most of his friends. Tentatively she spread herself wide and groped for anything that would provide her with a hold.
It was like one of those dreams where she remembered how to fly. A spur of quartz for the ball of her foot, a damp niche for index, middle, and ring fingers, cheek against stone, cool air on her neck. Round-bladed grass trailed from a cleft above, restless in the breeze. Her calf began to cramp. A cloud cut into the sun. Penelope arched her neck, careful not to shift the torque of her body. The rock stretched above her like a man’s cheek darkening with five o’clock shadow.
From here, Luke had shoved his fist in the cleft and floated up and over in a single motion. Luke was taller by several inches. Penelope began to sweat. Her right leg, extended so that just her big toe took the brunt of her weight, was trembling uncontrollably. This wasn’t the sort of climb you could back down. The holds weren’t obvious. They couldn’t be caught on the instant. Penelope slowed her breath, visualized reaching that cleft, and lunged. Her hand fastened onto gritty rock, but she couldn’t hold it. Grass flowed through her fingers. Then grass became air and quicker than thought she was back to earth, the hard, hard earth.
“Mom! Are you okay?” Jane was running across the field.
“Dammit. My back.”
“I’ll go get Nanna—”
“You have to tell her!”
“Not if I can walk, I don’t.”
Luke gave her a hand up.
“That final move is a bitch.” His tone was sympathetic and utterly devoid of camaraderie.
When they got back to the farmhouse, Penelope’s mother stood in the yard. She held a faded co-op bag under one arm. The old man was on his threshold, counting ten-pound notes.
“Now, remember,” she was saying to him. “If you want to get rid of that skin problem, hydrated petroleum jelly is the best possible thing. Any good drugstore will have it. I only wish we were in our own car because there’s some in my suitcase. I never go anywhere without a jar. The condition will improve within an hour of application. I guarantee you.”
Luke drove back to the shop somewhat more carefully than he had driven out while Penelope’s mother explained that she had tried on seven different sweaters in three different sizes. Being handmade, the fit wasn’t predictable. And that sweet farmer had made her a cup of tea. Undrinkable of course. Heaven only knew where his wife was.
Luke drew their attention to peaks in the distance he’d bagged or was planning to bag. Jane reminded him about letting her feed the goat, which he did when they got back while Penelope eased herself gingerly into the compact and made sure she was all right to drive before they set off for the hotel.
Once in their room, Penelope found the little silver flask she usually kept for after dinner and collapsed in an armchair. Jane upended her suitcase onto the bed in order to sort through potential outfits for the next day. The goat would be breakfasting at 9:30 sharp.
“My room has a better mirror.” Penelope’s mother said from the doorway. “I’ll be right back.”
With a dramatic sigh, Jane flumped down on her stomach amid the clean, folded clothes and criss-crossed her feet in the air.
“Do you think Nanna really will move in with us?”
“Would you like that?”
“She’d keep you from being lonely.” Jane picked at a stitched cotton flower on the bedspread. “With me and Dad away.”
Her daughter steadfastly continued to unravel the flower. It wouldn’t be the first time Jane knew what her father intended before Penelope.
“None of that is certain.”
“I want to go. And Dad does, too. I can tell.”
“All right.” Penelope gave the flask a little shake. There was less there than she’d thought. “But, if you were at boarding school, I might go with him to Japan.”
“If you went to Japan, I couldn’t board because Nanna wouldn’t move, and there wouldn’t be enough money. And if I stayed at home, you’d have to stay, too.”
Her mother swept back into their room with the sweater in her hands. She draped it on the arm of Penelope’s chair.
“Here, Penny. You take it. A memento of our trip. You’re so thin the shape doesn’t matter, and it will keep you warm. You get so much colder than me. Put it on Penny, put it on now.”
The sweater rasped against her skin as Penelope pulled it over her head, pausing halfway to breathe in the rich oily scent. This wool would repel mist and light rain. At night, it would bunch up into a serviceable pillow.
“Actually, Mom, with the right jeans, it’d be kind of cool.” Jane sat up on her heels, head cocked in a newly appraising fashion.
“Well now, I’m not so sure…,” began Penelope’s mother.
Penelope looked from one to the other, then addressed her daughter.
“How’d you like to start climbing?”