The last time I visited Frau Bienkowski I was wearing a red cotton skirt. The pattern featured lots of identical girls and boys holding hands and strolling past apple trees.
“What lovely material,” she said, motioning for me to come over so she could have a closer look.
“Yes, I love it,” I said. “But the problem is that the elastic at the waist has come loose and I’ve got into a terrible habit of tying it into an ugly knot to stop it falling down.”
“Bring it to me next week and I’ll sew it up.”
“Do. I can’t guarantee that it’ll be pretty but it’ll do the trick.”
I called my mother on Skype. I was deeply ashamed of my elastic knot. It stood for both incompetence and laziness.
“You should let her do it, Katzi,” my mother said. “I’m sure she’d love to do something for you.”
So last Friday I went to the Turkish market. And as well as purchasing six avocados and three mangos, I bought some elastic and a little sewing kit.
“Did you bring the skirt?” Frau Bienkowski asked the moment I entered her room last Saturday.
“I did. And pears too.”
“Good. Now, let me have a look.”
I handed her the skirt and rummaged in my bag for the sewing kit and the elastic.
“Can you thread me a needle?”
I tried but Frau Bienkowski wanted a double thread.
I tried again.
“Oh but that’s a little too short, Katechen,” she said.
I tried a third time. This time Frau Bienkowski approved.
“Good,” she said. “Now, how about you either read to me or tell me about your week while I get a start on this.”
I could have told her about my week, which was rather eventful, but I got distracted.
Frau B’s hands were flying. She tore out my ugly knot of elastic and started weaving stitches furiously. The waistband was restored in minutes.
Then she asked me to put my finger and thumb on the flap where she’d placed the last stitch and told me to come over to her armchair so she could measure my waist.
Her hands moved the elastic easily about my waist.
With a few marvellous swoops, she sewed it in. She wasn’t even looking at what she was doing. When she saw how astonished I was, she said: “But Katechen, this was my job. You never lose the feel for it.”
My red cotton skirt used to live at the bottom of a large wicker basket. It shared its home with an enormous plastic nose, several berets and a pair of bee’s wings. I used to match it with ugly purple beads when I pretended to be the Queen of England.
With the terrible dawn of adolescence, my dressing-up basket was cast into the bottom of a basement wardrobe.
Years later I re-discovered it and found that the skirt’s loose elastic made it a one-size fits all. The queen’s skirt had turned boho-chic.
I took it with me when I went inter-railing in 2009 because it was light and didn’t crumple easily. I also fancied myself as some kind of honorary gypsy in it; a fantasy I indulged in while gazing out the windows of the slow trains which hauled me through eastern Europe.
Frau Bienkowsi, her fingers moving like those of a master pianist across a keyboard, broke the silence.
“Katechen,” she said. “I don’t want you to say Sie to me any longer. “I’m not Frau Bienkowski any more. I am Lotta.”