short story Trace

Provenance

One wardrobe, passed from person to person, is at the centre of this enticing short story by Hattie Clarke.

by Hattie Clarke

In the village of Mödling, a little south of Vienna, Maria turned up the path towards her sister’s studio. The smell of sawdust and varnish hit her before she stepped inside. In the centre of the room was a small wardrobe made of wood from a local walnut tree. It was carved from top to bottom and looked more like a palace than a place to keep clothes. Marta stepped out from behind the structure, a dirty cloth hanging from her pocket and her hair full of wood dust. This was her first large scale project since taking over the family business and she embodied her father as she stood stoically surveying her work. She beckoned Maria to the back of the wardrobe where she could see ring after ring of circular age.

Despite its beauty the wardrobe was still far from perfection, and although they needed the money, Marta refused to sell it. The wardrobe stood proudly in the main room of their small house, and they shared its space between them. Maria hung her long cord skirt and their mother’s old rabbit coat that was kept for best, alongside Marta’s overalls and a growing collection of imperfect wooden objects.

Five years later at a badly attended auction, Maria watched the sale of her sister’s furniture. She had emptied out the wardrobe a week ago, and now Marta’s hoard sat in bin liners on the kitchen floor. When Maria took out the wool blankets from the bottom drawer, she felt around the side where Marta had engraved her initials. She pressed her fingers along the letters to try and embed them on her skin.

*

The winning bid came from a Parisian woman who had a furniture shop in Montmartre. When the wardrobe arrived from Vienna a month later she inspected it afresh. Now she could take her time over it, out of the gloom of the auction room, she noticed that for all its embellishments and sturdy façade, it was not a well functioning piece of furniture. For a start the door would not close properly and made an odd clunking sound when it was opened, rather than the satisfactory click she liked to hear from a wardrobe door. The only way to keep the door closed was to wedge a piece of folded paper into the gap, like you would under a crooked table. She could not bear to steep to bistro ballistics.

A man came in the following morning to shelter from the rain and Celeste spotted him lingering near the wardrobe. She spun him a story about the wardrobe’s long history and how this was the last piece of furniture carved by a great Austrian carpenter before his tragically young death. When he offered her 125 euros below the price without even testing the door, she accepted gladly, making it plain that she was not open to any form of refund.

*

Frank had the wardrobe delivered to London, where he presented it to his niece and her new husband. It was all he could do for not attending their wedding, and was a small price to pay for placating his sister and her stream of quarrelsome phone calls. The couple weren’t sure they liked the wardrobe, it was small, the carvings were fussy and it screeched every time they opened the door. They agreed to hide the wardrobe in the spare room and order something minimalist that was a better expression of their life philosophy. So the wardrobe sat underused for a few years, stacked with bed linen, unwanted Christmas gifts, shoeboxes and occasionally, when it was absolutely necessary, cleared out so a visitor could use it to hang their clothes.

“In the centre of the room was a small wardrobe made of wood from a local walnut tree. It was carved from top to bottom and looked more like a palace than a place to keep clothes.”

One such visitor was Carina, who spent her first night in the spare room sat up in bed staring at the wardrobe. When she couldn’t sleep Carina liked to distract herself anyway she could, and the only option in the bare guestroom was by inspecting the intriguing wardrobe. She thought the wood must be oak, but the colour was too warm and buttery for her to be sure. When she opened the door it groaned horribly and she grasped it, hoping it hadn’t woken up her hosts. It was empty apart from a slightly bowed clothes rail screwed into the sides, but she felt the wardrobe was inviting her, so she climbed inside. She crossed her legs and leant back against the side. She liked the view of the room better from inside the wardrobe; it felt like she was in a cave looking out over a ravine. The wood creaked gently as she breathed. When she woke up she realised she’d spent the night asleep in the bottom of the wardrobe, dozing like a creature fallen out of Narnia.

It wasn’t long after this visit that Carina found out she was pregnant, and all of a sudden she had a committee of well meaning friends, interfering with everything from her diet to her domestic situation. And so, the wardrobe moved across the country, from one relieved owner to a home in ‘critical need’ of furniture.

*

When Anya was five, she climbed into the wardrobe during an argument with her mother and pulled the door shut behind her. This was no mean feat as the door was usually impossible to close. She sat in the wardrobe and cried into her knees, quite without realising that the sleeve of her favourite jumper was caught in the door. When Carina opened the door to find her, it tore an enormous hole in Anya’s jumper and left tufts of orange wool in the latch. Anya screamed at her mother all the more, and although Carina tried to patch the jumper, the two wools didn’t quite match and it was never the same again.

The clothes of Anya’s teenage years bowed the wardrobe’s rail to breaking point. Every so often Carina would hear a shriek of anger from upstairs as the rail came out of its screws and all the clothes fell in a heap in front of her daughter. It was a gamble of fragility every time she hung up clean laundry.  When Anya moved out, Carina kept the wardrobe how she had left it, periodically opening the door to take in a familiar sight. The bottom of the wardrobe was a disgrace; pairs of old shoes, broken hangers, plastic shopping bags…but also, a small wooden train that belonged to a set of tracks and carriages. The train must have gone awry during a childhood clean up and been saved from that particular trip to the charity shop. Carina placed it back beneath the adolescent rubble and used a coat sleeve to wedge the door shut.

*

When Anya finally got to it, the wardrobe was covered in dust. Her old bedroom had been used for storage for so long that her mother had stopped bothering to clean. Her son Will went straight at it with the duster and removed several dynasties of spiders who had colonised the inside. Underneath it’s unhealthy exterior it was still a magnificent hunk of wood. She was pretty certain her mother had told her it was made in Germany, or somewhere like that. Will thought he could get a good price for it at an antiques market, and as his grandmother had left him little else, he thought this was one of her possessions worth having.

The wardrobe lived empty in his hallway for too many months. His cat nested in the bottom and on a few occasions the house was awoken by yowling as someone had shut her inside by accident. Sunlight beat through the hallway window and began to bleach the walnut so it started to look like the carpenter had fallen asleep while varnishing it. The on-going battle with Will’s bike, as he brought it through the hallway, had left scratches across the lower part of the wardrobe, and the bike’s pedals spat out fierce splinters onto the carpet. One of Will’s housemates had to go to A&E after one of the splinters punctured his heel.

The chaos carried on until finally the wardrobe was more worn than it had been during its years of spider occupation, so Will gave up on its money making potential. With some difficulty, he inched the wardrobe out of his house and lowered it down the front path. The bottom drawer fell out on the way down and he had to go back and retrieve it. As he slotted the drawer back into place, Will felt the smooth engraving on the side and found the mysterious cursive signature. MW. He took a photo on his phone to show his mother and returned to the house.

*

The wardrobe waited. The damp pavement seeped into its feet and the breeze flapped the paper sign sellotaped to its door:

FREE TO GOOD HOME

Within ten minutes, it was gone.

 


Hattie Clarke | @hattielc | www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/author/hattie-clarke

Hattie is a writer and arts professional living in London. When she’s not writing or reading she’s exploring the collections of museums and galleries, hunting for stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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