Skip to content

Reflections of a working writer and reader



Out-takes XII

The midwife told me that gender conditioning begins the moment the baby is born. The parents, the doctor, the first visitors, grandparents, the nurses on the ward, they all conspire together. The first question is always: “Is it a boy or a girl?” And once they know the answer they react accordingly. “Oh, what a big boy, what a strapping little chap,” they say. Or if it’s not a strapping little chap at all, they handle it much more gently, and say: “Isn’t she beautiful; what gorgeous eyes; and pretty, so pretty.”And the strapping little chap or the pretty, so pretty, the newly arrived space traveller, whatever it might be, having survived the most courageous journey of all, says to itself: “Oh, Jesus, I’ve been preparing this trip for months. Thought I was ready for anything. But, you know what? I just lost all my picnic spirit.”


I don’t have many pictures in my head of my father. Not in the early days, anyway. The first memory, the most haunting memory is of the quilt. Even now, every so often the quilt comes back into consciousness, and I’m puzzled, because I don’t know what happened to it. I can hold it in my mind’s eye, see the different stages of its production, and at those times I’m filled with the sense of expectancy, of ultimate completion that the quilt gave me as a child.

The first time I saw it it had a strange effect on me; it carried a sense of generations, of fingers stretching back through time. There was something about it that struck a match in me. The quilt had an air of ancestry, of the past, of connections between the living and the dead.

This feeling of age, although it was present, although it would not be ignored, was not the most striking thing about the quilt. What I remember more than anything else is its beauty. The completed panels were as if lit from within, and the effect was of delicately stained windows illuminated by the rays of the sun.

My mother spread the quilt on the floor. It was begun by her mother, and when the old lady died it was only a little more than half complete. It was, my mother explained (this when I was nine, ten, eleven), a design known as Church Windows. Each panel was of a different colour, but all of them in the shape of a diamond, and part of the overall effect was achieved by contrasting the brilliance of the panel against a mat black background.

But the genius behind the quilt was not a matter of technique. Its success did not lie in the choice of background, nor in the exquisite craftsmanship, the hidden threads that held it together. This ingredient, this supreme quality in the quilt was contained in the unerring choice of the material for each panel, of a sure knowledge of the relationship of each diamond, not only to its neighbour, but to all its sisters it the total composition.

For the last five years of my mother’s life, I watched her work on the quilt. She wrung her hands over it; she placed a diamond on the black surface and sat back in her chair to gaze at it. After a while she discarded that diamond and replaced it with another, and then another. Finally, after an age of contemplation, she stitched one into place, and began the process all over again. At other times she would remove the last four or five diamonds, obliterating the work of months at a stroke, and begin again.

The quilt grew. During mother’s last illness, she kept it to hand, and the week before she died she began on the penultimate row of diamond panels.

And then it disappeared. With my mother’s death the quilt vanished. I thought at the time that my father had taken it, but he denied it. It was a mystery, and it is probably because it is a mystery still, that I find myself returning to it in my mind, even now.

It worried me dreadfully at the time, that it disappeared. I imagined some kind of occult phenomena. And some time later the quilt became confused with my mother’s soul, and I thought she would be unable to rest until it was found. But after I discovered I was Joan Baez, I simply said to myself: I ain’t going to grieve no more. And I didn’t. Not about the quilt, anyway.

8 Responses to “Out-takes XII”

  1. Lee says:

    A beautiful piece of writing, and a wonderful extended metaphor for memory.

    jb says: I’m blushing now.

  2. skint writer says:

    That is great writing john, I dawdled over it a long time.

    jb says: Thank you. It’s an out-take, something I can’t use, not because of the quality of the writing, but because it doesn’t belong anywhere else. Like most writers, I used to store up pieces like this, keep them in a cupboard or on a disc or wherever in the mistaken belief that one day they’d come in handy, that they’d fit into something, a larger vehicle, that wasn’t yet created. But, of course, that never happens. You can’t graft two pieces of different statues together. They don’t fit. You can always see the joins.
    There’s an old story about Hemingway, when he was leaving Paris to return to the States he had all his unpublished writings, pieces he didn’t know what to do with, or that he hadn’t been able to throw away, in a couple of suitcases. And they were stolen on the station in Paris.

    Years later he was able to say that that was one of the best things that had happened to him. To unload all that dead weight.

    With me it’s slightly different. I know I’m not Hemingway, and I don’t have a couple of suitcases. And, anyway, I can publish it . . . on my blog.

  3. Robert says:

    I always suspected you were Joan Baez.

    jb says: There but for fortune. . .

  4. Marti says:

    I have files of “bits” like that too. Sometimes a sentence, sometimes a page. I can’t get rid of them. But I’m a packrat, I can’t get rid of anything! LOL

    Wonderful to read your work. I am the manager of the Squidoo authors group you joined and probably wondered if anyone was ever going to do anything with. (Geez, that is a convoluted sentences, huh? LOL)

    Anyway, I hope you’ll stop by the group. I will continue to read your work wherever I can find it – I really enjoyed it!

    Best wishes to you!

  5. skint writer says:

    Funny that grafting of bits of different statues analogy – that’s part of what I did with my Three Bears novel. That’s how it started anyway – the trick then was to weld and file the joins until it morphed into something new. I’ll leave others to judge if it worked or not, and yes it was an unloading.

    Don’t know if you’ve thought about it but this piece of yours is probably ideal for William Shaw’s Unmadeup blog

    jb says: I’ve never been successful at doing what you did with Three Bears. But then again whenever I tried to do that I was trying to weld a finger onto an already full hand. What you describe is something different, the polishing and filing until the disparate parts become something entirely new.
    Thanks for the comment. It’s interesting to think about.

    My piece (above) is entirely ficticious, which, I believe, disqualifies it for William Shaw’s site.

  6. Ron Sprocket says:

    Hi, Miss Baker. You have written an interesting article about the quilt. Social historians usually date its demise to the introduction of the mini skirt by Mary Quant. Sadly, quilts look quaint when worn above the knee and quaintness was a trait not highly valued by the fashionistas of the day.

    As far as Joan Baez is concerned, for three years in the mid-eighties I thought I was Tina Turner and consequently took to wearing the kilt. The difference between kilts and quilts is directly proportional, of course, to the size of the patterned squares. Interestingly, in the eighteenth century, quilts, salt and herring (in season) were Scotland’s main exports to the Baltic States. Danzig Willy, who built Aberdeen’s original townhouse, made his fortune this way. When the quilt went out of fashion following its adoption by ladies of ill repute his fortune quickly declined.

    It’s strange to think that the kilt – after the Jacobite rebellion – and the quilt (in certain Middle East countries) both became proscribed articles of clothing. This perceived threat to society is mirrored today in the current controversy over another dubious item of headgear. I refer of course to the hoodie, which is an outer garment favoured by young men of a certain social class, and not a type of crow, as many people seem to believe.

    jb says: Thanks, Ron. I know what you’re trying to do here, but it’s not easy for me to relive all that.

    As you well know, that’s when I had Tinamania, in the mid-eighties. A few thousand of us Yorkshire lads contracted the malady at the same time. Someone put it out that Tina had become a naturalized Scot and was living up in Aberdeenshire, so we all went together. I wasn’t very bright at the time, but I really thought you’d be glad to see me.

    Perhaps if I’d taken a few lessons in your language or brought more changes of underclothes things would have been easier, but I was seething with lust and desire and the rational part of my brain was out on hire. I was separated from the rest of the lads at Aberdeen station when the police put them in ranks and marched them over to Pittodrie Stadium to see a clash between the Dandies and the Huns. Meanwhile, trance-like, I followed a star-lit, ethereal track down to the river where two sylph-like creatures took me by the hand and led me in an unerring path to your Adult Tina Turner Costumes Shop.

    I can see it now, Ron, in my mind’s eye. The shop, the Dee behind it, glistening in the sunshine, the scents from the blossoms in your garden, the humming and buzzing of the summer insects and butterflies collecting nectar and fertilizing the plants and trees. And, miraculously, in the midst of it all, you in your dark body make-up, blond rug, and the Queen of Rock’n’Roll costume from Tommy, that gold lame, thigh-hugging dress with the cleevage and the split side. What’s love got to do with it? What indeed.

    The climax came when a roar went up from twenty-two thousand voices over at the stadium. We both thought the Dandies had scored and only later discovered that it was the Scots who had scored and Yorkshire had lost another few thousand brave young men.

    Yes, Ron, happy days indeed. Following on from your comment, the letter, phone call and photographs were all appreciated. Now that I’m entering my dotage, such things are precious.
    PS. I do hope the gender re-assignment op is living up to your expectations.

    PPS. Then there was this:

    An Aberdonian, a sheep, and an alsatian were survivors of a terrible shipwreck. They found themselves stranded on a desert island. After being there a while, they got into the habit of going to the beach every evening to watch the sun go down. One particular evening, the sky was red with beautiful cirrus clouds, the breeze was warm and gentle; a perfect night for romance. As they sat there, the sheep started looking better and better to the Aberdonian. Soon, he leaned over to the sheep and put his arm around it but the dog got jealous, growling fiercely until the chap took his arm from around the sheep. After that, the three of them continued to enjoy the sunsets together, but there was no more cuddling.

    A few weeks passed by, and lo and behold, there was another shipwreck. The only survivor was a beautiful young woman, the most beautiful woman the man had ever seen. She was in a pretty bad way when they rescued her, so they slowly nursed her back to health. When the young maiden was well enough, they introduced her to their evening beach ritual. It was another beautiful evening: red sky, cirrus clouds, a warm and gentle breeze; perfect for a night of romance. Pretty soon, the aberdonian started to get “those feelings” again. He fought them as long as he could, but he finally gave in and leaned over to the young woman, cautiously, and whispered in her ear… “Would you mind taking the dog for a walk?”

  7. Gosh, that’s such a sad story about you and Ron up in Aberdeen all those years ago. I remember his costume shop well when I was a student there. At least you can still “joke” about it. Doesn’t look as though Ron can though. Life can be so tragic sometimes.

    jb says: Small world, eh, Bill? Ron once told me he only had two customers. You must’ve been the other one.

  8. I was indeed. Until I developed a crush on Olivia Newton-John and took my business elsewhere. To be honest, there was something else. The fact is I was never too sure about Ron. That moustache. The way he walked. The bare hairy chest he sported even in winter. How can I put this without hurting your feelings? I can’t, but the truth is, and there’s no other way to say thism, He wasn’t much of a looker was he? Especially without his teeth in.

    Not for a woman anyway.

    jb says: I think teeth are over-rated, Bill. My mum never had any. I blame that toothpaste company, the one on the telly.