I was given a handkerchief this weekend. A voluminous, swan-white, cotton handkerchief. In the moment, I had demanded a tissue, partly because I needed some practical distraction to stem the flow of ridiculous tears, and partly because I needed to mop up the flood. But in the place of a tissue, or toilet roll or even kitchen paper, came this kite-like cloth, big enough to hide my face in. It was larger than I’d imagined it would be, and seemed to keep unfolding – as if it were to have boundless consolatory powers. It smelt clean, but someone else’s clean, until I twice washed it. Now I have three handkerchiefs that were not always mine.
My own handkerchiefs I have had since I was very small. I don’t have any new handkerchiefs, because one doesn’t really buy oneself handkerchiefs until one is of a certain age. Not until I own enough cardigans to pocket or sleeve them – but when I do, my collection will be legion. My own handkerchiefs, those that have survived the journey, have pictures of fairy tales, or embroidered flowers, and occasionally my name in “uniform ink” in the corner of the tableau. I think they’ve kept so well because I always tried to sleeve-save them from their predestined application, and instead used them as fidget fodder. They seem very small now; one sneeze might exhaust them. But in that time when I could legitimately not brush my own hair, when I was small enough that someone would read to me, and that I would have shoes with buckles and ribbed socks, and smell a bit like crayons, sawdust and lavender water, back then, those square cloths subsumed my pockets.
Even if I didn’t use them as God intended, I did, however, have a habit of squirreling away precious things inside my handkerchiefs. Like a tooth that gave up its hold when I couldn’t have immediate gummy recourse to my mum, or a button that I had twiddled until there was no twiddle left. I don’t think the practice of using handkerchiefs to envelop special things is a habit peculiar to me, though. I remember plenty of book illustrations, cartoons and films where spotted handkerchiefs on a stick seem to clasp the world of necessary paraphernalia for adventure, or escape, or quite beginning again. I believe when life is carried this way, the bundle is called a “bindle”. I always imagined the contents to be so rare and eclectic and not at all useful. A button, a little bottle of liquid (content specification unimportant, but most likely Holy water), a ham sandwich and a bobbin. And bindles were only to be shouldered at that time of day when there might be stars.
My mum once unravelled my sister’s day on the evidence of a handkerchief found in her pinafore pocket. She must have been perhaps only 6, and, whatever it was that made her cry, she emptied herself into her pocket handkerchief, and didn’t tell anyone, until she was so kindly betrayed by the pocketed wetness that my mother found when preparing the dress for the wash. There are still pockets to be cried into, but there are never any hidden from our pocket-checking, ever thinking mother. Her slender digits count the wrinkles in and count them out, like a roll call. Wash out the used kerchief, iron out the creases, fold it away in the drawer next to some lavender, an old soap or a hidden smile. When my sister was so small that even I don’t remember, when she was that small, mama used to tell her to fetch her smiles from the drawer. To be honest, the drawers in our house held so much gubbins, you might truly believe they were there.
Handkerchiefs were one of those accepted, taken-for-granted pieces, of life, but now they’re increasingly forgotten. Only a year ago I tried to buy one as an anniversary gift in a suit shop in St Pauls, but there was none to be had. No demand. How so, no demand? Are there no precious things to enfold, or has fidgeting come to an end? More so, how would they ever wave “surrender” should they need to? No more starry-eyed bindles? To be honest, it’s probably good they didn’t have one, it would have been a rubbish anniversary gift. But I felt so sad that the world was changing so very much, that embarrassment was now the realm of Kleenex. Handkerchiefs were going the way of pen pals, and handwriting books, and who even knew what a bobbin was anymore? I bought a book of maps as a gift instead. Apropos absolutely nothing.
And now I have three that weren’t always mine. One is linen. It is delicate and is to be taken out on those occasions where one wears uncomfortable clothes and carries bags that you couldn’t possibly compare to the cavernous depths of a bindle. About one inch from the edge, there is a pattern made of holes, where the material mysteriously isn’t. Linen is a big deal in our family. My mother has a linen sheet, over a hundred years old, that is stiff and starched, and beautifully preserved. It is the colour of a wheatsheaf and is made of the last harvest of her family’s flax, or so the story goes, from Longford in Ireland. I have no idea of the provenance of my linen handkerchief. It appeared, one day, in a drawer. I know it is older than my sister and I, and I love the self-satisfied stiffness of it, and how it seems to know it has a heritage in the propriety of stemming familial emotions.
The second handkerchief belonged to my father and I’m rather afraid that I stole it. It is kept in a drawer with silk scarves and ribbons and I never iron it. It wouldn’t suit being too tidy. It is white with a blue trim, and the edges are gathering. It used to be kept with a jar of Yardley’s Lavender Brilliantine hair gel, but not anymore. On occasion, I decide that I need it and will stuff it into my pocket unceremoniously. Or stuff it up my sleeve, like a woman on the verge of wearing purple cloths, and a mismatching hat. It’s the kind of handkerchief one could use for anything. It is a knotted-together bedsheet for escaping conversations that I need not surrender to; out through a window and running like a loon into my memories. But it is particularly useful for winding around ones fingers, in the dark, lint depths of a pocket. Especially when one is out walking, or watching the river.
And now this new handkerchief. This latest addition, which seems to unfold and unfold. It reminds me more and more of an albatross, and I giggle at the thought of trying to wipe my eyes and nose on the poor bird, even if it is supposed to be a paradigm of hope. I imagine it growing in my hands, watched by the person who gave it to me, until it billows out with a breath, and becomes a sail in my hand. Unfolding, and unfolding to the edges of this cloth for compassion, my fingers searching for its borders, as like for braille, and not having the sorrow to fill it for the moment, I fold the brigantine sail into my pocket and promise to wash and return it, but rather hoping I can keep it and replace it with one less like the sky. And then I get to thinking about Veronica – she who wiped the face. She knew the worth of offering a handkerchief. They’re not to be carried for oneself – they’re to be carried for the offering. I imagine her walking to a drawer, perhaps one with her favourite scarves and maybe a bobbin. In my imagining, she is slim and dressed in lilac and nearly transparent, like a pencil drawing. She folds a piece of cloth and places it in the drawer next to three handkerchiefs; one linen, one with blue trim and one newly washed.