Ronan looked at the slip of paper in his hand, then up at the cafe, then back to the bit of paper. The letters all matched up, so there was no avoiding it. This was the place, and the time. All he had to do was walk in.
Or he could walk away. No-one knew he was here, so no-one would know if he just left. He didn’t have to do this. That was what shops were for, as he always said.
With a sigh Ronan headed inside, the clipping clutched in his hand like a safety blanket. It was old-fashioned he knew, checking out groups in the local newsletter, but he was hoping that being old-fashioned about it would mean he’d find a group with like-minded people. None of those millennials, who always complained about having it so hard but seemed to enjoy life far more than he had in his youth.
The group wasn’t hard to spot in the half-empty cafe. Eight women clustered round a table at the back, with half a wool shop sprawled out between them. For the hundredth time he checked the listing again, checking yet again that there weren’t any restrictions. Open to everyone, from beginners to experts, it still said. Everyone, so that had to include men as well.
Only one way to find out, Ronan thought and he squared his shoulders before marching up to the group. They were talking as he approached, and that made him falter, but he was too close now to leave again. One of the women noticed him and smiled.
“Hello,” she said in the patient voice of someone used to having to explain what she was doing.
“Um, is this the knitting c-group?” There was no way in hell he was going to call it a club, whatever their ad said. That made it sound like a kids group, and most of the women here looked to be even older than him. Apart from- aw damn it- one girl at the back, who could only have been twenty or so.
“Yes it is.”
Even as he'd said it Ronan had realised it was a stupid question, but what else was he going to start with? “The ad said novices. I- I need to learn how to knit.” It was the first time he’d said it out-loud since he’d come up with the stupid idea, and he was bright red in seconds. If the woman noticed though she didn’t say anything.
“That’s brilliant! Come on, take a seat and show me what you know so far.”
“Not much.” Ronan grabbed a chair from the next table and tucked himself on the end, still trying to keep as much distance between himself and the group as he could. Just in case he needed to make a quick exit. “I... borrowed these needles from my wife. Are they… are they alright?” Borrowed- that was a nice word. It was simpler and gentler than the truth.
“Oh wow. These are gorgeous. Is she an avid knitter then, your wife?”
“Yeah, she loves it,” Ronan said, digging his nails into his palm as he spoke. “I wanted to try and make her something, in secret.”
That got a round of ‘awws’ from the table, and suddenly everyone was on board with helping Ronan pull off the most romantic gesture of the year.
If only they knew.
“How are you getting on Ronan?” Julia asked. Ever since that first meeting she’d appointed herself as his personal knitting tutor, and he hated that he wasn’t a better pupil.
“I think I’ve got… a row?” He held up the piece and winced. Even after weeks of work he still couldn’t knit a straight line, and this row was far shorter than the one before it.
“That’s good! You’ve just dropped a few stitches, but that’s okay. And you’re getting faster at it as well.”
For all her kind words, Ronan still figured he was a lost cause. What was I thinking? Just buy something, it’ll be easier. And it’ll look better, though at the moment my old handkerchiefs look better.
Julia could read the doubt in his face, like she always could. “Come on. I’ll do a row and neaten it up, then you can have another go, okay?”
“Yeah.” It took what little self-control he had left not to throw it at her. That wasn’t fair though; he knew she was doing the best she could. “Shannon always says I have thick fingers. Can’t even put up a shelf straight. Don’t know why I thought I could do this.”
“You’re too hard on yourself,” Julia said. “I know it might not feel like it, but you really are improving. Besides, if it’s for someone you love then they don’t mind what it looks like. It’s the thought that counts, and your wife will understand that.”
“I’ve never understood it,” Ronan confessed. “I always… well, I was never the most supportive when she made things for people. Always said we should just buy something instead. I never really got the whole ‘hand-made means more’ thing.”
“But you’re trying this?”
“Yeah, well. Thought it was about time to try and work out what it was all about.” Better late than never.
Julia smiled, that exaggerated, slightly patronising smile that he hated to admit did actually make him feel better. “Well then, I’m sure this’ll mean even more to her. Now come on, have another go while I get some more tea in.”
“Hey Ronan! You’re here early.”
“Yeah, the bus was on time. Guess it had to happen eventually, right?” Ronan grinned at Julia as she put her tea cup down on the table. He was already halfway through his, having actually gotten the earlier bus. “Here, look what I’ve got done.”
“Oh wow! Oh, that’s a beautiful colour.”
“Yeah. Figured I’d try stretching out to a baby's cardigan, but I didn’t want it to be gendered.”
“You can’t really go wrong with green, can you? It’s such a gentle shade as well. And you cast it on by yourself!”
“Haha! After so long I should at least be able to manage that, right? I’ve not been at this one long.” That last bit was a shameless lie, and Ronan wasn’t sure why he’d even bothered saying it. Of course Julia would know he’d been at it since last week, and had still only managed to get four rows done. But they were even, with a consistent tension, and each of them had the same number of stitches. He was damn proud of those four rows.
“You see, I told you you’d get it. Don’t forget, the rest of us have been doing this for decades.”
“Apart from Abby.” The millennial was the best knitter of the whole group, although Ronan was the only one who was bitter about that fact. That was mostly because she’d rocked up one week saying she was learning how to crochet, and the next week had brought a pile of exquisitely made hats. If Ronan had even a smidgen of the talent that girl had, this stupid idea of his wouldn’t have been such torture.
“Yeah, well. We don’t talk about her,” Julia teased. The pair of them sat in silence as they waited for the others, Ronan knitting at his snail’s pace with his tongue sticking out while Julia watched and smiled.
“Hey Ronan, glad you made it.” Even though it wasn’t a knitting group meeting, Julia had still taken the large table at the back, and she’d already bought tea and cake.
“Hey. You didn’t have to call me up you know?”
“You’ve missed two meetings. I just… wanted to check you were alright.”
Ronan took a deep breath and helped himself to a cup. The plan had been to fade away, and to never have to face up to this, but then damn Julia, brilliant, caring Julia had called him up and invited him to afternoon tea. After everything she’d done for him he couldn’t refuse. Besides, it wasn’t like he had much else to do on a Saturday.
“I’m fine,” he said, although he still hadn’t convinced himself of that.
“Then why haven’t you turned up?”
I could say I’ve been busy. That I’ll be back in a week or so, and keep pushing it back until they forget about me. Then he looked up at Julia, and her perfectly open and innocent eyes, and remembered other eyes just like that.
“I’ve packed it in,” he confessed. “I’m not cut out for knitting. I mean come on, it’s been months and I still can’t knit a square properly. Children can knits squares, but I can’t. It’s just not meant to be. I’ll just buy something.” And he knew as he said it aloud that if he did he’d regret it for the rest of his life. But I just can’t! I’m not good enough-
“You love your wife, don’t you?”
Julia’s question caught him off guard, and with all the thoughts in his head this time he choked up. “Y-yes.” With a cough he took a drink, the cup shaking as he lifted it. The scalding tea helped him get a grip on himself. “Yes, of course I do.”
“Then trust me.” Julia leant across the table and touched his hand gently. “You can do this. You’re doing really well, and Shannon would be so proud of you if she knew what you were doing.”
Yes she would. She’d also laugh, and call me a soppy old sod, with his fingers on backwards. That’s what she always said when I tried to put up the bookshelves.
“Trust me,” Julia continued. “I’ll get you through this. You can do this. And then she’ll be so proud.”
“But… everything I make is crap.”
“That’s not the point though, is it Ronan? If was just to have a purpose you’d buy it. But this is to show that you love her. So you make it.”
“I’m still not sure I get the appeal of that.”
Julia laughed, and even Ronan had to grin, taking the chance as she looked away to blink back his tears. “Finish her present,” Julia said. “Then you’ll understand. Come back to the sessions? Please?”
Upbringing won out over any last reservations he had. “How can I refuse the request of a lady?”
The piece lay on the middle of the table, sprawled across napkins to keep it off the sticky surface.
“It’s so cute!” Abby said, and Ronan hated himself for checking to see if she was taking the piss. Be fair; they’re nice people, and they’re genuinely encouraging me. Besides, it’s not like I’m competition to them or anything.
“It’s adorable,” Julia said. “And it’s finished. Your wife is going to be so proud.”
After so many months Ronan was getting better at hearing that but this time, with the finished little cardigan in front of him, his breath caught again.
“Oh, it’s perfect. Can you just imagine a tiny little baby wearing it?”
“Abby, please tell me you’re not getting broody.” The group laughed and broke up into baby talk, but Ronan was still staring at his handiwork.
It was bent, but not half as bent as the first few pieces he’d made. There weren’t any holes in it, although that was only because of some emergency intervention from Julia. At a distance the soft pastel green hid the worst of the faults. Overall, for a first time, not bad. It’s just-
“What’s bugging you?” Julia said quietly to him as the conversation drifted off.
“I’m not sure about the buttons. Do you think two is enough?” God, why do I hate myself? The button holes were the absolute worst thing to do. I couldn’t bear to do any more.
“It’s only a small cardigan. Any more would swallow the rest of it. They look sweet.”
“It doesn’t just… look like I gave up then?”
“No,” Julia giggled, having held his hand and supplied him with tea as he fought his way through them. “It looks great. It looks perfect. When will you give it to her?”
“I’m going to wait for the right moment. After all this effort, I want to get this right.”
Month Nine Point Two
The right moment had arrived.
Ronan wandered through the hospital, marvelling at how much had changed and how much hadn’t since the last time he’d done this. The walls were still the same bland off-white, but the machines were all shiny and curved edges now.
Outside the door to her room he stopped and tried to neaten his hair. Should I have made an effort? I can’t remember what I did last time, it was all such a blur. The shirt he wore was clean, but there was a smudge of last night’s dinner on his trousers. After he picked the worst of it off he figured it would have to do. He was too scared and excited to leave again. Besides, neither of them were going to notice.
With his present wrapped and tucked under his arm, Ronan knocked gently on the door. For a fleeting moment the guilt at misleading the knitting group came back, until he heard a murmur from inside the room. He slipped inside as quietly as he could.
“Morning Lisa,” he said with a grin that he couldn’t stop even if he’d wanted to.
“How are you doing darling?” Though he was asking his daughter, his eyes drifted over to the far side of her bed.
“I’m fine. We’re fine. Come on, come and meet her.”
The tiny little baby in the cot was sound asleep and wrapped up snugly. Nothing was visible apart from her face and one miniscule little hand, but Ronan was already in tears. “She’s beautiful.”
“Dad-” There was a catch in Lisa’s voice, and worry in her eyes.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry Dad. I know I said I would, but I can’t… It’s still too soon. I can’t name her after Mum, I’m sorry-” As she broke down Ronan sat on the bed next to her and gathered her up in a hug.
“That’s okay my darling. She’s your daughter. You call her what you want. We’ll remember Mum in other ways, okay?” It took a while to dig out the tissues, or for either of them to be able to speak clearly again, but Ronan waited. I want to get this right. “What are you going to call her then?”
“Evelyn. Evelyn Shannon.”
“That’s a good name. And…” This is it. This is what it was all for. “Speaking of your mother, I got you something.” He handed the present over, glad that his daughter was still too snuffly to notice his shakes. “It’s not much, and it’s not good. But… well, if your mother was here she’d have had this sorted. But she isn’t, so I’m going to do the best I can. I don’t want you and little Evelyn missing out on this.”
There was suspicion in Lisa’s face as she started to pick at the tape. That’s only fair, she is my daughter after all. It’s exactly how I would’ve reacted. God, why did I even bother with this, it’s a stupid idea-
The delicate, wobbly cardigan dropped out into Lisa’s hands, and she sat there staring at it. Ronan couldn’t take the silence.
“Your mum had all these books of baby patterns. She was really looking forward to being able to knit them all again. But since she’s gone… I wanted to honour her memory. I wanted to keep a part of her with us-” Ten months of pent up grief burst in that moment. Tears streamed down Ronan’s face, as he waited for his daughter and granddaughter to pass judgement on his knitting.
“Dad.” As Lisa looked up, her eyes damp with tears and her face still drawn from labour, she looked the spitting image of Shannon, sat in the same maternity ward all those years ago. It broke Ronan’s heart even more, but there was a comfort to the pain. She’s still with us.
“I love it Dad. Thank you. And she would be so proud of you.”
Ronan sighed, and felt the first ray of joy since that terrible day. “That’s as good as hearing it from her,” he said, beaming at the echo of his wife that lived in their daughter.