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Gina and Livia Sewing

Where did they end up, the two women? ‘Hey, Giorgio,’ they call to me, ‘this damn machine, she’s not right.’

They christened me Giorgio. I must have reminded them of someone, because everyone else at the factory called me Rob or Rab or Robbie, while my mother persisted with Robert.

I recall seeing them – Gina and Livia - the day I started work. The king had died in the night. Fresh from school and green as I was, I gawped at them gossiping in Italian while they sewed. They laughed and ruffled my hair. ‘Hello, Giorgio.’

A few years earlier they had just appeared, folk told me, and no-one was quite sure where they had come from. Some said from Edinburgh, some from Glasgow, but those who were most intrigued by them insisted they must have been spirited from Italy at the end of the war, the lost daughters of communist partisans from the mountains or disgraced fascisti.

They worked alongside each other in their corner, close, two halves of a single person, sewing tailored garments and accessories for private clients and one-offs for couturiers. Mr Donald seemed to rely on them. They teased me in a friendly way, unlike the rest of the workforce, who believed that the newest apprentice had to be broken in by sending him to search for a left-handed screwdriver or a bent hammer, giving him salty tea to drink and generally making him feel even more foolish than he naturally was. Gina and Livia introduced me to Italy - pasta and oil and exotic vinegars, the importance of family, coffee, wine, grappa, opera, ice-cream, the countryside, the politics – and I fell in love with the idea of it. But they never talked about themselves.


In appearance they were unalike, Gina dark and Livia fair-haired with a touch of auburn. When, after they had gone away, I spent time in Bologna and Rome and other cities, I saw classic Italian beauties alongside others with the lighter hair that you often see in the south, where the Normans had ranged and traded, leaving behind their castles and their genes. I spent long days inside and outside cafés, on those trips, looking for resemblances, finding a dozen a day, and yet finding none. I wondered if I might come across Gina and Livia themselves sitting in some corner whispering their intimacies, but only once, as the light faded one evening in Naples, did I catch my breath with the possibility.


I was a maintenance engineer, seven years indentured as an apprentice, taken on from school to learn about the machines and how to keep them running smoothly. A sewing machine can whirr and stitch, but that is not enough if it breaks threads or puckers the fabric. I quickly learned the interplay of mechanical parts – and later, electrical ones – but the preoccupation that I shared with the women on the machines was the tightness of a silk or cotton thread. Tension. If I did my job well, the machinist could control the tension. If I missed something, deadlines would pass as tempers were lost, women’s wages fell, and families might not eat.


Gina taught me to sew. ’Is the only way you learn to think like the machine,’ she said. ‘And is not your head, Giorgio, what you have to think with. Is your fingers.’


Gradually my fingers learned their trade, and I earned the accolade of being the engineer they all preferred to call for.


Now I am getting old; I can see the horizon. It’s not too close, but it’s there. I feel less useful now than I did even a year or two ago. I still run up a few practical things on my old Singer, bags to keep this or that in, costumes for a nativity play, but our daughters’ sewing and knitting machines are tucked away in attics and sheds, and I cannot meddle with the grandchildren’s electronics the way I did with motors and gears and rotating cams. The tension now is all in the software.


I was happy at my job and work was good to me. I shared in the general prosperity as the country recovered from war and the business flourished. When I retired 12 years ago, the company refrained from giving me a gold watch and bought me a tour of Italy. ‘If you run into Gina and Livia, give them our love,’ they said, knowing my long curiosity.


In the late 1960s, the company had received an order from an Italian film star whose daughter was due to marry. A long-time fan of British tailoring and Scottish tweeds, the actress had commissioned cloth for her mother of the bride outfit and for the young couple’s house in Cosenza – Scottish chic. The company’s job was to make it all up, money no object, Mr Donald said.  The bride’s father came to see the work in its late stages, and chatted to Gina and Livia for a long time. They seemed to have some shared history. A week later came a special delivery: two invitations to the wedding, to be held in a hill village in Calabria, and return plane tickets, first class.


They arrived in Reggio, the airline told Mr Donald, but did not take the return flight.


When the house is quiet, I can see Gina and Livia at work - cloth everywhere, seemingly haphazard, the machine flying – and hear their conversation, until they stop and complain that I am in their light. ‘Basta, Giorgio! Enough!’ I hardly ever saw them apart.

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