Design: Lovers come and go but a linen cupboard is forever

More than just a piece of furniture, a linen cupboard is an almost forgotten way of life

My French grand-mother kept her pistol in the linen cupboard, under a stack of square starched pillow-cases. The cupboard was in her bedroom, on the ground floor of the little village house inland from Etretat in the Pays de Caux in Normandy. My grandfather was often away on business, and he gave her the pistol to reassure himself that she would be safe during his absences. He was an engineer, a very practical man. He taught her how to aim and fire the gun and made her practise her shooting regularly. If a burglar dared to come through the window at night, he would find my grandmother waiting for him with the pistol cocked.

The linen cupboard was of pine, as ornately fashioned as a side chapel in a cathedral. Tall and wide, reaching from ceiling to floor, it filled up almost the whole of one wall. It had been made in the mid-19th century as part of a dowry. In those days, in the countryside in France, you started off your married life with the furniture and clothes you expected to last a lifetime and that you would hand on to your children at your death. A bed and a crockery cupboard and a linen cupboard were crucial items. The massive panelled door was opened by a large iron key inserted into the massive lock. The pediment and front of the cupboard were heavily carved with intricately twisted garlands of corn and flowers. These florid decorations embodied the local style in Normandy, the corn and blossoms symbolising the fruitfulness of the marriage of the young people who had been given these pieces of furniture.

The linen cupboard made you think of secret sexy places, of the fullness that was pregnancy. It was a sort of household god. To me as a child, it was like a little house inside the house. A special place that you needed special permission to enter. We never went into my grandparents' room unless invited. Sometimes I accompanied my aunt to help her get out the clean sheets, or to put them away. Apart from the pistol, the cupboard was full of household linen. It brimmed with everything a family might need during a lifetime, everything made in dozens, most things stitched by hand. The sheets were pure linen, thick and heavy, embroidered by my grandmother with her initials in a raised silky monogram. In those days, linen was not a luxury but simply the hard-wearing material from which most household things were made, your clothes as well as your sheets.

During the Sixties, linen went out of fashion, I suppose because it was seen as not high-tech enough. Too peasanty. Everybody was into futuristic clothes and fabrics, white plastic boots and satellites and Telstar. The vogue came in for man-made fibres like Terylene. My grandfather came back from working in the States bringing nylon-mix sheets, so the linen ones were hardly ever used any more. They were special, laid away as memories of an earlier, more leisurely time. Like so much else in my grandparents' house, they qualified as "best": to be kept in a box and wrapped in tissue paper. Part of the charm of the linen sheets was their bulk and weight, the elaborate care that had to be taken in laundering them. They had to be hung up properly to dry in the garden, ironed with a hot steam-iron while still damp, pressing the monogram on the back so that it would stand proud, and then folded in threes before being put away. It was a lot of work. When my mother was a child, a washerwoman came in once a week to do the laundry in a big copper in the back yard, but in post-war France, you had your own washing-machine, did your own wash, and stuck to synthetics.

I longed to inherit a pair of those linen sheets, but did not. But last Christmas, my dear neighbour in France, a farmer who still does things the traditional way, gave me a pair of the two dozen linen sheets she had sewn and embroidered for her own trousseau 35 years ago and never used on her own bed, because her husband claimed they were too scratchy. He prefers cotton with a dash of polyester. She uses the linen sheets, some of them, to make up beds for the workmen who come and stay on the farm in summer, helping with the harvest. Lucky workmen, tucked up at night, after an exhausting day, in this superlative bedding; it's no more than they deserve. The sheets, when she brought them round, were yellow and thick, slightly rough to the touch. Now they have faded a little from being washed and dried in the sun and air, they have bleached to cream colour, and they are smooth as smooth can be to lie on. It takes two people to hang them out on the line, they are so heavy. They have drawn-thread work decorating the upper edge, all done by hand, and my neighbour's initials in stump-work. They are wedding sheets, and make night-times feel like honeymoon. I was completely overwhelmed by the generosity of this gift.

When you open the door of a linen cupboard, you smell the outdoors, you smell summer. The sweetness of sun and wind which has dried the linen outside, the little bags of lavender that have been slipped between the layers to scent them and to keep moths away. It's like having a hayfield inside the house. Particularly powerful in winter. You can stick your nose into the starched piles of sheets and let yourself believe that summer will come again.

But as people vacate the farms, as unemployment bites and the younger generations move to the cities, the old ways of living get lost. Traditional linen cupboards now sell in antique shops for huge sums and belong less and less to the country people who made them. They now decorate the salons of Parisian second homes rather than being used by working families.

People can get a bit precious about linen cupboards and their contents. There is a scorching satire, in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, on a lady novelist rabbiting on about the almost mystical rapture of sleeping in fresh white linen. I always felt a bit sorry for this lady. Rupert Brooke, after all, went on about the rough male kiss of blankets, so I didn't see why she shouldn't rave about the smooth female bliss of clean sheets. French cynics define love as the contact between one epidermis and another. Well, lovers come and go, but a linen cupboard is always waiting, with the sensual, consoling caress of its sheets. That is something not to be despised.

Michele Roberts's new novel, `Fair Exchange', is published by Little, Brown, price pounds 15.99

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