This story was first published in 31 parts via Twitter during July. It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.
The Last Post
Lying in bed, it occurs to me that I’ve not seen Elizabeth post for a while. In fact, it must have been at least a month, maybe more, since her avatar was registered in my timeline. In darkness, with only phone’s warm light for illumination, sudden concern springs from nowhere. We are ‘friends’, but there’s no idea of where she lives exactly. I know its somewhere in the Peak District, because it is mentioned from time to time in her tweets. Wherever home is, the cottage’s views are spectacular, with a cozy wood fire that burns every night, without fail.
It’s a moment to remember her username, because that’s what I always struggle with. Pictures are fine, but handles… ah yes, @Woollen_Mittens. Calling up her page on the phone, her last tweet was indeed a month ago. Before that, she’d posted two or three times a day, without fail. I am immediately concerned: it doesn’t matter that we’ve never met or I don’t know if this is her real name. There is a connection, created from years worth of shared interests. Embroidery, gardening, poetry and music define this relationship: so much else shared since joining the platform.
Looking at her mentions, she was due for surgery at the end of last week, something mentioned only to people it seems fair to assume are close friends. Finding the one mentioned the most, I look up her profile. This isn’t a friend, but the woman’s daughter, in her early thirties. Reading back through her timeline, an awful truth emerges. There had been a problem. Her mother had suffered a massive pulmonary embolism, passing away eighteen hours before surgery was due to be undertaken. It had taken everybody by surprise, particularly members of her family.
In the darkness, alone, tears appear from nowhere. I wish my partner were here: she’s not due back from London until Wednesday at the earliest. I can’t call her at 2am, not with an 8am breakfast meeting scheduled. Suddenly, this world seems an awful, unfair place to exist within. She’d chide me anyway for becoming emotionally attached to a person that had never been met, and wouldn’t understand the relationship we’d fostered. This is not normal or healthy for a woman regardless of her age, and we both know how awful and divisive the Internet has become.
Standing downstairs, an hour later, I make hot milk and vanilla and am grateful I don’t work Tuesdays. However, in the wee small hours a plan has been formulated. Mittens lives less than an hour away from me. Tomorrow, I’m going to make an effort to find out who she really was.
I suddenly need to know more about my friend.
The next morning, I head to Buxton, place most mentioned in Mittens’ tweets. There’s still no real plan of what to do, except spend time walking around, matching various tweets with locations around town, then wait for inspiration. A coffee shop is found, Bakewell Pudding and latte bought to allow opportunity to sit and think. Looking across the busy street from my table, there’s a display in the shop opposite that feels oddly familiar, collection of jumpers and embroidered cushions… this is Mittens’ work.
I’m scrabbling for phone, realising these items have been posted before, made as projects when Mittens was unwell last year, stuck in bed for several months. Whoever owns the shop must know who she is… but how on earth do I go across the road and start a conversation about her? There will never be a good way to do this: instead of sitting quietly and panicking over the details, time to walk across the road into ‘Maid in Derbyshire.’ As I enter, a snatch of Ralph Vaughan Williams is recognised, ‘The Lark Ascending’ making me smile, despite sudden nerves.
At the counter, a man of about my age is sitting, reading a battered copy of an Iain Banks novel. As he looks up, there’s a stab of recognition: I’ve seen him in pictures before, with his wife and young daughter. This is Mittens’ youngest son, whose name temporarily escapes me…
‘Good Morning, lovely day isn’t it?’
‘There’s not a way of saying this without sounding like a stalker so here we go anyway. Hi Ivan, I knew your mum via social media. I am very sorry for your loss.’
Putting down paperback, man’s face breaks into a smile, before he’s laughing.
‘If I told you this isn’t the first time someone’s come in here in the last few weeks and said that, it should make you feel better. We were aware of Mum’s double life for a while, but only when she passed did the depth of support really come to light. What is your username?’
The nerves and fear have summarily evaporated: telling Ivan I am known as AustinsHemline, something amazing happens. There is recognition of me, without the need for anything else, of that I am certain: now he’s getting up and heading this way, offering hand with a broad smile.
‘When all this started, after random people started turning up with flowers and condolences, there were a couple we’d hoped would appear. You are, I must say, on top of that list. My mum had a really close bond with you, I know, and I’m so glad you felt strong enough to come.’
It seems really strange to be crying now, in front of a total stranger, but this man isn’t any more. I’d expected him to get defensive or nervous over imposition, tell me to go away or become angry: instead he’s handing me a beautiful linen handkerchief whist maintaining distance. Eventually, having composed myself, I realise he’s waiting to take me behind the counter, into the back of the shop. There’s a small kitchenette here with chairs and a table, on which is a pile of boxes, some with address labels. Ivan motions me to pick a place to sit, so I do.
‘My mum very much knew she was on borrowed time. The operation was supposed to improve her quality of life, but we’d been planning for the worst since the initial MS diagnosis a decade ago. Her embroidery had become the means by which she could escape the confines of the bedroom. The relationships that were made with you and others became a substitute for reality. She was never alone: if frightened or confused, Mum would simply turn online, and you’d support her with love and without question. You became important, vital, part of a family she cared for. We didn’t know that we’d lose her like this, but she was ready. Mum made provision for everything, so we’d not have to worry when the time came. There were also plans for people like you, because of understanding that a thank you would want to be made. This is yours, from her.’
Hands are shaking as Ivan hands me a parcel, marked with my username. Inside is an embroidered version of the Manchester skyline, plus a quote: ‘There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.’
The quote is Jane Austin’s, from ‘Northanger Abbey’ and now I won’t stop crying again. We spent hours talking about literature, and now she’s gone there will never be a way to thank her. Except, perhaps that isn’t totally true… as a writer, there is one path that remains open.
I have dinner that night with Ivan and his family, plus elder sister Katherine. Mittens is no longer simply an username, but person: Elizabeth Lowe was the daughter of a seamstress, her father responsible for founding a successful travelling theatre company. She was eighty two, and inspired three generations of the same family to become tailors and dressmakers, with her eldest granddaughter about to start working as a costume designer at the Leeds Playhouse. This woman’s influence and significance in local community and beyond is unexpectedly immense.
On top of this, she’d created a successful online community for people who’d never operated a sewing machine or threaded a needle, teaching skills in simple, broad strokes: quilting, embroidery, needlepoint, simultaneously offering support to create clothing projects from scratch My direction is clear: this is a story that demands to be heard, of a woman who defied poverty and hardship, and never once put herself ahead of others. An entire life, until that last breath, was spent being generous, kind and helpful to anyone who asked for help or assistance.
It takes six months to write, making sure the book notes that the Internet does not have to be a frightening, dangerous place full of stupidity and hate. If people are willing to embrace and trust, then entire lives can be changed for the better as a result, by a single person. This becomes the story of a woman who understood that teaching others to sew wasn’t just doing so as recreation, but as a means of allowing self esteem and pride in practical projects which could then go on and be used, worn and admired not just as clothing, but as achievement.
‘Lowe and Behold’ sits complete, manuscript that is my gift to Mittens and her family: their story, means by which I hope a life that was so full and rich will be remembered and appreciated by generations to come.
My own creation, sewn from her threads: remembrance for us both.