Here is an old story of mine, which appeared in The Warwick Review a long time ago. It involves a typewriter, shoes, carpets and telephones. Technology has moved on. I thought it would provide some light relief in this challenging time. If you like the story, and the notion moves you, please feel free to make a small donation to a charity of your choice. I don’t mind either way, as my intention is to entertain.
The Emancipation of Margot Feather
Mrs Margot Feather types on the old mechanical typewriter with her hands high, as if she is playing a piano.
‘I could have danced,’ she says to her husband, who is studying a batch of new headed notepaper with his half-frames, ‘But instead I bash away on this old machine. Why can’t you get me a computer?’
Mr Feather replies, ‘What use is a computer to me? And besides, your feet are not the feet of a dancer, but curiosities of medical science.’
Mrs Feather pulls the paper from the machine making a ripping noise like a chiropractor’s manoeuvre.
Mr Feather looks over his glasses. ‘Be careful with that letter. I hope that you lined up the heading. The letterheads were expensive.’ He leans across their facing desks and takes the letter from his wife. ‘There is a comma missing!’
Mrs Feather pushes herself round in her swivel chair, stretching her cramped feet and sighs.
‘A computer would have spotted that. And I could have corrected it before printing it out and thereby wasting your expensively headed paper.’
‘I’ll put one in by hand. You can make us some tea!’
With difficulty, Margot stands, her posture as exact as she can manage. Her high-heeled shoes are not sensible for a lady with toes that cross one over the other like chopsticks. She teeters into the kitchen behind the shop. The kettle and the microwave sparkle in the shabby little room. An assortment of cups and mugs are neatly stored in the battered cupboard. Ordinary ones for every day. Special crockery for important visitors (hardly used) and some expensive biscuits (for the important visitors) past their use-by date.
Mr Feather once had grand plans for the business, but somehow the order book had never been as full as it should. Feather’s Carpet Empire had never grown much beyond a tiny population of loyal and undemanding customers. Margot had invested her small inheritance in the business, which her husband has controlled unimaginatively and stolidly for 35 years. She now dreams of retirement rather than becoming the queen of an empire of carpets. Flooring has become too arty and sophisticated for Mr Feather, who laments the lost days of bespoke wilton and carpet tiles. All this new laminate is not his cup of tea. He is a great believer in the benefits of 80/20 wool-nylon in traditional patterns. Internet shopping has undermined his competitiveness. He has to woo his customers from their keyboards with his belief in traditional sales methods and gentleman’s agreements. The ‘individual approach’ he calls it. His method involves visiting his potential customers carrying a van load of carpet samples, ordering things on a casual nod of interest from customers who then buy somewhere cheaper. The warehouse is a museum of unwanted orders and speculative purchases by Mr Feather who has reliably failed over the decades to anticipate trends and new technologies in flooring.
In the kitchen there is a window over the sink where Margot fitted a net curtain. She deliberately left a narrow gap at one side to allow her a small view of the outside world. Behind the office, which is part of a modest industrial unit, there is a shared car park. All the other businesses here have rear doors and fire escapes that lead out onto it. Margot sees what the people from the other businesses get up to in this shared space. Sometimes an employee emerges to make a mobile phone call, or sneak a cigarette. It is place where one imagines privacy, but can be secretly observed. That is worse than no privacy at all – she has heard many one-sided phone arguments, and seen kisses and packages exchanged under the fire escapes. On one occasion, at the end of a day, a woman even changed right down to her underclothes into something more suitable for a night out. Clubbing wear as it is called. It barely covered her underwear, Margot had noted wryly to herself. She thinks that ‘clubbing’ is a strange term, but she has never been to a club, or hardly even to a pub. Mr Feather is a not a man who likes to party. He has never once danced with her, even at their wedding.
Margot studied typing at school instead of the longed-for ballet. She read ‘A Dream of Sadlers Wells’ over and over again, but there was no ballet in Spindleton, only typing. That was before her metatarsals crossed like the typebars of an ill-used typewriter after an early foray into stilettos. She’d be useless if she went to one of those clubs. She couldn’t stand at a bar in high heels without wobbling, let alone dance. With her high heels, Margot commits wild acts of rebellion against her feet. Her husband is scornful of women who ‘put themselves out’. Margot doesn’t think her husband actually understands what that means, but takes it in its intended moral sense. She is told by her friends she is very attractive for a woman of her age, but feels she is not likely to attract the attention of any men with her erratic gait – unless they happen to be orthopaedic surgeons. And besides, she has no income of her own; all of her resources are tied up in Feather’s Carpet Empire.
The tea, when she makes it, is too strong for her husband. He complains that his insides will be stained to match his contract underlay. She gives him one of the stale biscuits, which he uses to gesticulate at the letter.
‘My comma looks amateurish, unprofessional. You’d better type this letter again.’
‘A type-written letter is scarcely likely to impress anyone these days. People expect it to be printed on a proper printer. You can even put proper headed notepaper in one.’
He dips his biscuit into his tea and looks disgusted as a dry piece crumbles off and sinks into the dark brown liquid.
‘Women were liberated by typewriters. A typewriter is a symbol of female emancipation.’
Mrs Feather sighs. She may as well have had typewriters strapped to her feet.
‘You know, soon we shan’t be able to obtain replacement ribbons for this old machine. I have to send for them from a place in China. It costs a lot of money.’
For a moment, Mr Feather pauses, his cup at his mouth, a tide of biscuitty tea tipping his moustache like a paintbrush. He looks at his wife, as always, over the half-framed glasses. They give his face the appearance of a man with exaggerated eye-pouches.
‘There is something more personal about a letter that has been typed. An embossed quality that cannot be achieved by an electronic printer.’
‘And the machine needs maintenance. The carriage is sticking. The spacing is not even, if you notice…’
‘I shall fix it myself!’ he says in that obstinate voice that means there is no point in arguing with him.
Margot slowly re-types the letter without mistakes and removes it theatrically from the machine as if she was removing a giant sticking plaster.
‘I have replaced your amateurish comma with a professional and personal one. But it is a little close to the end of the preceding word for my professional liking!’
She gathers the cups. Her husband’s cup is still half-full but he hasn’t noticed. In the little kitchen she pours the soup of biscuitty tea down the sink and considers her shabby domain; the scratched and stained steel sink that has worn to a dull finish after many years of scouring powder and tea dregs. She wonders what it would be like to work in a modern business and be her own boss. If only she had kept some of her money aside.
From outside the building, there is a noise. Margot pulls back the curtain slightly and sees a man standing at the top of the fire escape of the office across the courtyard, waving his phone in the air. Maybe he thinks a signal will be attracted to it like a taxi to an outstretched arm. She pulls back the curtain and watches him. The man is not one she has seen before. He is about her age and tall, has a nice suit, a straight back – he’d have an air of importance if he didn’t look so silly. He is almost entreating the sky to obtain him the concession of a signal. Maybe he is praying to it. Surely he could use the landline inside the office? But perhaps this is a clandestine call, or he doesn’t want someone to know where his is phoning from. He looks quite agitated. Margot quietly slips the catch on the window and opens it a crack. She can hear his feet on the fire escape stairway, ascending to the top platform, the metallic sound reverberating across the courtyard. Once there he leans back with his phone pointing it almost vertically, as if the signal would be beamed down in a column, like on Star Trek.
The man’s voice, quiet at first, rises until he is almost shouting, but the words are inaudible. She opens the window a little more. He paces up and down on the platform. His heels make a military sound. Maybe he is a spy! This is unlikely; the fire escape belongs to a firm that sells catering equipment.
Her husband shouts from the office; his important letter is ready. He requires her to take it immediately to the post.
Margot is glad to get out of the office anyway. She is bored with the secretarial work. The business would have done much better had her husband allowed her a hand in the purchasing side of it. Her feet hurt but she teeters down the stairs to the street door. She pauses, and, on a whim, she doubles back on the ground floor along the passageway to the rear of the building. She has the master-key and can let herself out that way. The letter can wait. It is only a quotation to supply and fit some carpet to the lounge of a nursing home.
The back of the small business unit is a utilitarian space. Not that the steel-clad fronts are much nicer. Carpet should be sold from a comfortable retail spot.
There is no sign of the man. It is like looking for an unusual bird seen from an upstairs window – by the time you get downstairs, it is gone. Above her, the steel walkway frames the sky. Occasionally in the summer, she goes outside for a tea break. She and Mr Feather sometimes sit there together. They keep two camping chairs in the broom cupboard just for this pleasure. The metal grids vibrate and sing in the faintest of breezes. They might well be on an oil-rig. Occasionally seagulls come inland and wheel overhead, contributing to that illusion. Today it is almost warm; little bits of rubbish blow around in silly circles. A cat slinks away. Where is that man? There is no sign. She looks at the fire escape again. She checks her own phone for the strength of the signal. It is poor, but there is one bar on her phone. Perhaps she imagined him. Margot looks up through the steel steps where the man would have descended. She can see a rectangle outlined through the mesh on the second flight. It is his phone! She is sure of it. Climbing awkwardly in her heels she reaches the bottom of the second flight, and sure enough it is a phone. It is a similar model to her own. She looks around – there is no one to be seen. Should she take it to the police station? Perhaps the man will realise that he has left behind his phone and return for it. That is likely. She will leave it in situ. Then, on an impulse she does something ridiculous. She picks up the phone and, checking that it is on and unlocked, she turns the phone’s camera lens upon herself and clicks. Not bad! With make-up she looks pretty decent for her age – her friends are right. And the crooked toes don’t show. Her husband does not know how to operate a mobile phone, and has never had one, but Margot was given an ex-contract model by a friend and takes satisfaction in her mastery of the complicated instruction book that came with it. A computer would have been no problem to her. She presses the own number button and the man’s number is displayed. From her phone she transmits a business card for the shop on Bluetooth. She returns the man’s phone to the step.
By the time she returns to the office, with aching feet, it is time to go home. Mr Feather is already locking up. He carries the old typewriter in his arms like a heavy and sleeping child. Let him try and fix it! Surely he can’t make it worse.
Margot makes them a meal of cold meat and vegetables, served with homemade pickles. Her husband is particularly fond of her onions. Leaving her with the washing up, Mr Feather hides himself away in the dining room with the typewriter, which he declares has suffered at her heavy hands. He suspects her of sabotaging it.
‘More like my hands that have suffered. You are not a typewriter mechanic. I am, at least, a qualified typist.’
She washes up. Her kitchen window at home is covered with the same net material that she used in the office kitchen. She has again left a little gap for viewing the world. Not that there is much to see here, just the street. The evening is still light and children play on a nearby patch of grass. It reminds her of her own childhood and she has a yearning to join the youngsters, to take off her shoes and run on the grass; it will be cool under her tender feet. But childhood is a long time ago. All that past is closed to her as if a steel door had slammed. Her mother said that to marry a businessman was a sensible thing to do to assure a secure future for her children. It would be a good place to sink the small legacy she had from her grandmother. And, once, there had been hope for the future – the prospect of a profitable business, and children. Margot dances silently at her kitchen sink in her slippers, ignoring the complaints of her crooked feet. She regrets that she has no children to assure a future for. Her fallopian tubes are as crooked as her metatarsals.
From the dining room, she can hear her husband swearing at the independently-minded pieces of the office typewriter. He is no mechanic. He is a man who would not understand the instruction manual for a mobile phone, let alone a computer. He is a man who has never danced, even at his own wedding.
At breakfast, Mr Feather scowls. It is his wife’s fault that the typewriter has gone from faulty to inoperable. The letters will have to be handwritten until it can be fixed.
‘At least you have your fancy headed notepaper,’ Margot remarks, taking away her husband’s plate before he has quite finished the last corner of toast.
In the office, unusually for so early in the day, there are already messages on the answering machine. Remembering her impulsive act of yesterday, Margot shrinks from dealing with them. Maybe it was a foolish thing for a woman old enough to know better to photograph herself on a strange man’s mobile phone.
Her husband is still complaining about the typewriter, and Margot is by now very irritated.
‘A computer is what we need to keep up with modern business.’
‘We have managed very well without a computer for over thirty years. I am going down into the warehouse to check on the stock for the nursing home carpet.’
‘A computer would have done that automatically!’
‘I am sure that there will be plenty of letters for you to write with your very professional pen.’
Margot is glad when her husband leaves for the warehouse. He probably won’t be back until lunchtime. There was a time when she loved the warehouse, the smells of jute, wool, rubber and glue. It was exciting. She would dance barefoot on the display samples and run her toes into the shag pile. Now it all seems like so much ballast.
She picks up her pen, and regards the baleful light on the answering machine. It is the one concession to technology her husband has made. She will deal with it! But first, she puts the kettle on and takes a handful of the expensive biscuits. Ones that are in foil wrappers and hopefully still edible.
There are three messages. One from the nursing home to say that they have found a cheaper source of carpet on-line so not to bother with the quote.
The second message is an apology from the nursing home for phoning again, saying they must have pressed the re-dial button.
The third is a blank message. She can hear a hissing sound and the clearing of a man’s throat. Then the phone is put down. She checks, but the caller’s number is not available.
There are no letters for her to write. She makes a cup of tea, but the biscuits crumble to dust as soon as she unwraps them.
She calls the nursing home and asks them what price they have been quoted. As she listens to the reply, she can hear the sound of feet ascending the fire escape stairs immediately outside.
‘That is very cheap. What sort of carpet?’
There is a harrumphing on the phone and a scuffling sound outside the fire escape door.
‘That is a brand we no longer stock. It is not very durable. You will have to replace it in two years.’
Silence from the phone and the fire escape.
‘Tell you what. I’ll match the price, including fitting. You’ll get a much better carpet. We have it in stock. I’ll want payment on delivery.’
They would make no profit, just clear the backlog of carpet that she knows has been in the warehouse for much more than two years. Mr Feather will be furious, but Mrs Feather has seen the books. Cash flow is a shrinking stagnant pool. However, the nursing home manager knows a good deal when he hears it and accepts.
She puts the phone down. She can hear someone descending the fire escape stairs. Her feet are so stiff she cannot get to the door quickly. She looks through the window; there is no one around.
At the back door all she can hear is the wind in the metal framework and the traffic beyond. She looks downwards and, on the grille outside the door, she finds a mobile phone. It is the same one as before. Maybe someone is watching her secretly, but Margot can see no one and picks up the phone. It is unlocked.
In the office kitchen, whilst her tea goes cold, she calls the number that has been pre-dialled and has an interesting conversation.
Her husband returns, beaming.
She tells him about the nursing home. He shrugs and says, ‘Small potatoes. I have a good mind to tell them when to get off.’
Margot does not correct him. Her husband is like a dog with several tails. It seems that a man showed up at the warehouse this morning and told him that he had been let down by his supplier and could he kindly fit out his hotel with good quality carpet, sparing no expense. It is a contract worth tens of thousands. Evidently, the man had come across his firm on the recommendation of a fine lady who knew a lot about carpets. Mr Feather crows over the virtues of his business prowess and old-fashioned values that foster good customer relations.
‘If you know what you are doing, you don’t have to make compromises with nursing homes. It’s a pity I don’t have an assistant like that helpful woman. However, I brought you a present.’ From the hallway he retrieves a cardboard box.
Inside, Margot finds an old, but working, typewriter. This time, it is an electric one.
‘All good things come to she who waits,’ he says.
Margot raises her eyebrows and says that they will celebrate with a cup of tea.
Pulling the net curtains right back, she sees the angular patch of sky above the office units. Today, it looks very blue and inviting. Whilst Mr Feather waits for his tea, Mrs Feather picks up her handbag and exits via the fire escape door. She has left a short, handwritten message on the expensive headed notepaper.